On November 9, 2021 the results of one of the most contested credit union merger elections were announced. The members of Vermont State Employees (VSE) had approved a merger with New England FCU. The final tally was 7,622 for and 7,304 against, a margin of 318 votes. Approximately 21% of the members voted, an unusually high participation.
I wrote a number of blogs about the contest. The opposition put up a website Calling All Members led by the former CEO and previous board directors. It presented powerful arguments against ending VSE’s independence. For these longtime VSE supporters, the outcome was a surprise and disappointment. However, they chose not to challenge the results. Since the merger date of January 1, 2023, VSE has operated as a division of New England FCU. A new name/brand is promised for the future.
“In the Room Where It Happened”
John Kennedy once said, “Victory has a thousand fathers; defeat is an orphan.” In this case victory has a mother.
I recount this story from a much longer article about her efforts. This insider’s account raises the question what the outcome might have been had this approach been revealed during, not 8 months after the vote.
In July 2023 this VSE senior executive who directed the merger campaign was the subject of a long account by Joel Berg. It is posted in full on the Financial Brand website, Tactics from a Nail-Biter Merger That Every Bank Marketer Can Use.
This lengthy, first-person story of the voting campaign centers on Yvonne Garand, VSE’s chief marketing manager. The article includes examples of the mailings and other promotions from the campaign which are not included here.
Writer Berg describes Garand’s communications strategy as the “make-or-break factor.” These included messaging to target segments at critical points in what ended up being conducted like a “political campaign” including hiring a consultant expert in political elections.
The author believes this case “offers lessons for other institutions concerned about how customers will react to a change in ownership.” Also an example of tactics necessary to win. He says the fundamental challenge in any merger or purchase-even if members vote: “the customers or members coming on board didn’t choose to bank with the acquirer on their own.”
The Critical Tactic for “Getting out the Votes”
The critical communication tactic was segmentation. Identify key groups and prepare different messages, tone and style for each subsector.
The two credit unions had different histories and business priorities. Both were community charters but VSE’s (1947) legacy was its state employee origins. New England’s roots were as an IBM chartered credit union (1961) with members outside the state from the beginning. These two Vermont based credit unions had created different business models, cultures, and brands.
Garand called her communications strategy a “human-centric approach” that ensured the “messages were empathetic.” In this short video link in the article she summarizes her approach with this point–the campaign couldn’t be a typical merger story about greater scale and efficiency.
“All of those things are important. But that’s our inside jargon. And we knew that if we came out with messaging and communications that sounded like that, people might not understand it, and it might even feel a little intimidating.”
Several key segments included “digital natives,” environmentally minded members, and those located around New England’s branch structure in Burlington.
But the most group was VSE members who lived near the state capital of Montpelier. As the longest tenured members, “We knew that this was probably the segment that would feel the greatest sense of loss because they grew up with VSECU. We really wanted this group to know that they were still going to have the same experiences that they have today.”
As Berg notes in the article, “knowing many “no” votes would come from the state capital area, the credit union focused on reaching potential voters in other areas of Vermont who might be more receptive to the merger plan.” He quotes Garand: “We strategically focused on the Burlington market — Chittenden County — as well as other smaller regions in Vermont, to encourage those members to vote. And it worked.”
Changing Tactics as the Opposition Organized
Garand’s reaction to the opposition, “It did take us off guard just a little bit, how effective this opposition was in the central Vermont area.”
The independence effort was led by Steven Post the former CEO of 26 years and other directors and senior executives. Their website offered multiple, thoughtful reasons for sustaining VSE’s unique values based, Vermont-centric model. I wrote several blogs presenting their position that VSE’s continuation was in the members’ best interest.
The Vermont State Employees’ Association and the Vermont Retired State Employees’ Association, opposed the merger. Given this backing, “we thought we were going to win,” says Post the previous long term CEO.
What made the difference? The opponents say it was VSE’s resources used to promote the merger. If one looks at the increase in marketing and professional services spending in 2022 versus the prior year, it would seem to confirm one critic’s estimate that over $1.0 million was used to convince members to support management’s decision.
From Berg’s article, “If we had had money to put ads on TV, I don’t have any doubt that the outcome would have been different,” says Jerome W. Diamond, the state AG from 1975 to 1981 and a former chair of the credit union’s board.”
The Vital Tactical Change
As the opposition organized Garand changed tactics from a traditional company marketing-messaging effort to a political campaign. Even bringing in outside consultant with election expertise.
Berg’s article includes more details with marketing collateral. This is an insider’s account of her role to persuade members to support VSE’s termination. She avoids debates about member benefits, rather the member communications focus on “feel good” concepts: “Better Together,” “Leading from the Future,” and “Enriching the Quality of Life.”
Garand rejects traditional business logic for mergers-scale, efficiency, innovation- to solicit votes. Recognize the opposition, but don’t engage with the critics.
The credit union controls the communication channels to reach the members including branch signage and multiple message marketings. Focus on advertising a potential bright future not on whether members should give up control over all the resources, relationships and community focus they have created and own.
Learning from the Past
Once eliminated via merger, there is no going back to resuscitate a vital legacy over 75 years in the making. When reporting on the outcome I described the losses that occurred not only for VSE members, but the state credit union system and its citizens.
New England FCU’s acquisition not only eliminated its principal competitor, it also created one credit union controlling 47% of the state’s credit union assets and 40% of members at the merger date. A big egg for one basket.
Tomorrow I will look at the results of the merger one year out. How are members responding? What are the financial trends? It is especially important for a look back while the events and points of view are still remembered.
We can change the future if we are willing to learn from the past. And then take seriously the differing judgments about the event’s consequences. One group lost an election about a credit union’s future role.
However everyone loses when the event is merely another successful example of the power of propaganda, or marketing, whichever interpretation best fits this recounting.