Navy and Pentagon FCUs: A Case Study of Size and Performance

For almost five decades Navy and Pentagon FCUs have ranked numbers 1 and 2 in total assets for all federal charters.

These top two positions seemed pre-ordained by the circumstances of their expansive field of membership (FOM) charters. Both served broad military and civilian employees in the regulatory era when all other credit unions were limited to a single military base or location as their market.

But even with this significant advantage, the financial evolution of the two organizations has been dramatically different.

The Four Decade Growth Results

At year-end 1978, Navy reported $765.5 million in total assets; Pentagon $397.6 million. The difference in the two, $367.6 million, meant that Navy was almost two times Pentagon’s size.

They retained their same number 1 and 2 positions respectively over 41 years later as of June 30, 2002. Now Navy is $128.5 billion and Pentagon $25.9 billion in assets. The difference between them is $102.6 billion. Navy has expanded to be five times larger than Pentagon in this time period.

During the four-decades, Navy’s compounded annual growth was 13.1%. Pentagon’s was 10.6%. What accounts for the dramatic difference in performance by these top ranked FCUs?

Both had the presumed advantages of size, scale and untapped FOM potential. Both served sponsoring organizations more or less immune from the economic shocks suffered by private employer-based credit unions. Both enjoyed the reputations and direct support of their government and military sponsors which provided convenient, rent-free, on-base locations not available to competitors.

The Difference in Business Models

Both federal credit unions operate under the same set of rules. But each chose very different business models even with the same product and operational capabilities.

Navy FCU manages over 340 branches worldwide. It focuses operations around military bases and surrounding communities in addition to its 24/7 virtual channels. Their growth strategy is organic. They emphasize serving familiar, traditional markets connected with their historical roots. In the most recent 12 months, this has resulted in a 9.4% rate of member growth and a 27% increase of shares.

Pentagon emphasizes virtual delivery, even while maintaining 49 branches. Growth has focused on an executive led strategy of “acquisitions” versus organic market development. Over the past six years, it has merged almost two dozen other credit unions. On January 1, 2019, it merged state-chartered Progressive Credit Union (New York) and added its state-defined FOM, giving it (Pentagon) the ability to serve anyone in the US.

At June 2020, Pentagon’s merger strategy reported a 14.1% growth of members, but only a 1.1% growth in shares. During this six-year merger effort, asset growth slowed to 6.5% or far below its 41-year average of 10.6%.

Both credit unions report similar financial ratios for ROA, net worth, delinquency, and operating expense as of June 30, 2020. Even the average member relationships are nearly identical at $25,000. But Pentagon’s average member loan (-8.5%) and share (-11.3%) balances show declining relationships. Navy reports growth in average balances per member of 3.8% in loans and 16.3% in shares in this same twelve months.

Observations from Being on Top

This two-firm comparison and last Friday’s article describing the 40-year changes in the Top 100 suggest that size does not create sustainable success. Rather, the strategy and implementation chosen by the credit union’s leadership is key.

Today, conventional wisdom is to preach the benefits of size to generate growth. Some credit unions have even declared their “growth” strategy is to merge.

But greater size does not automatically generate better value or relevance for members. Growth becomes an end in itself, just another milestone for leaders, but without relevance for members.

The Navy-Pentagon comparison is striking. It demonstrates the potential of the cooperative model to create a financial juggernaut with Navy’s member-focused strategy. One might even suggest that the members of Pentagon would be much better served if they merged with Navy FCU.

Pentagon promotes its “scale” to acquire smaller, sound and well-run credit unions by incentivizing CEOs and boards to turn over their members’ future to them. (The latest example: the Sperry Associates FCU merger.) The decline in membership participation and meager organic growth suggest little to no benefits for Pentagon’s members or for the credit union members who were sold out by their CEO and directors, and who will lose their only local branch.

If the billions of assets acquired by Pentagon in its six-year merger binge were subtracted from its current total, would Pentagon even report positive growth? Is this so-called strategy nothing more than a cooperative Ponzi-like scheme disguising an inability to create sustainable member value? And if it is, the entire credit union system, not just Pentagon’s two plus million members, will suffer the public consequences when this self-serving business model runs out of patsies.

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