Planning a Credit Union Wedding

March 2015: Vol 38 No 3
by Bryn C. Conway

How to communicate your merger to your membership.

just married sign on back of carMergers are very much like the blending of two families, the welcoming of a new family member, or a second marriage later in life. Each credit union has a defined history, a way of running its household, and even a few family members who are well-meaning but who will, invariably, make the holiday gatherings “interesting” at best.

Though full of possibilities and undertaken with the best of intentions, credit union mergers­—just like these life changing events—can be hard to manage. Friends and family need time to develop an understanding and adjust.

The question for credit unions on the path to merger is: “How can your two organizations be joined to ensure everyone feels a part of the new family, understands the envisioned future, and is committed to finding ‘our’ way of doing things?”

The answer for CUs as they merge is the same as it would be for us, personally, when blending families, welcoming a new family member or getting married. We need to engage our family members in shaping our new organization. To help you avoid upsetting a member of your credit union family who could harbor a grudge for years to come, here are some winning strategies to ensure a happy ending.

Host Family Get-Togethers: Court Your Members

Just as a happy couple can get lost in the joy of one another and their envisioned future, it is easy for credit union leaders to forget to bring their credit unions’ extended families along with them on the journey.

A proven way to ensure everyone feels included and vested in the change is to host a credit union “family” get-together. Just as you’d have your potential in-laws over for dinner or you’d make sure your friends had met your “special someone” before you combined your households, you need to get the important members of each credit union together before you announce the formal merger agreement.

These members could include employees, former board members, important stakeholders at both credit unions’ sponsor groups and members who regularly attend annual meetings. Though they may not have formal authority, these members will shape your message to the broader membership and can help or hinder your harmonious joining. 

Hosting a member meeting in a credit union branch office at close of business on a Tuesday is probably not a personal approach. Nor is advertising a “member meeting” to all members on your websites and with fliers distributed through the drive-up. You can imagine that gathering, and you may have attended one yourself: It’s a drab venue with bad food and worse ambiance where everyone looks at one another asking, “Why am I here?” You may end up imparting the message of the coming merger at your meeting, but the lack of personal attention and warmth will leave important family members feeling like a huge mistake is being made. 

The piece of advice you have heard time and time again in business and personal realms is of the utmost importance at the first meeting of your credit unions’ long-time and highly-engaged members: “You never have a second chance to make a first impression!” 

Keep in mind, that for many of your members, their credit union—and that’s how they think of it, their credit union—has played an important part in their lives. They have placed their loyalty, trust and often love with the credit union they helped build and watched grow. Take the time to plan meet-and-greets. Host a casual reception at a relaxed venue where legacy members, long-time employees and members who are the best brand advocates for the credit unions can meet the board of directors and where you can lay out the envisioned future together.

Although doing this will take executive and volunteer time as well as credit union resources when both are precious commodities, it will pay dividends as your credit union families are more likely to become comfortable with your intentions. Fostering familiarity will calm the fears and reassure those having doubts about the blending of your two credit unions.

You will know you have succeeded if the members who care deeply about your credit unions leave the get-together feeling the merger is in the best interests of both their organizations. You want them to share the sentiment that the parents of the bride have when celebrating their child’s nuptials: “They aren’t losing a daughter; they are gaining a son.” The merger is allowing for a welcome addition to their credit union family.

Prepare for the Big Day: Announce the Merger

Since your well-meaning, albeit crazy aunt has now met their socially awkward cousin and they have decided that the blending of these two credit unions is a good idea, you may now take your message to the masses!

Just as you wouldn’t introduce your special someone to your family on Facebook before they meet your mother, you shouldn’t announce your merger until the credit union families have met. Now that they have, post away! Update your status to “in a relationship” and go tell it from every mountain top you have. Send “save the date cards,” get the member-impacting events on the calendar and prepare your members for the big day. 

Much as it is your job to make sure everyone is comfortable while you and your significant other combine households or you prepare a child to welcome a new sibling, it’s your job as a credit union leader to make sure your members and employees are comfortable with your merger. Communicate early, often, and purposefully!  Ensure your members can ask questions, make comments, and catch up if they haven’t been checking in regularly.

Do this by following these three key steps to merger bliss:

1. Establish a Communications Hub. Communicating during a merger is an art and a science. You need to be diligent and methodical, and you need to know that everyone will have a little bit different take on each piece you create.

To ensure no one misses important dates or milestones, establish a “go-to” hub—preferably online—where all the information about the merger is available, where important dates are noted and, most importantly, where members can immediately send an email or make a phone call to get their questions asked and answered.

2. Develop an Action and Impact Calendar. Just as you need a plan of when and how as you coordinate a wedding, you need a timeline as you merge. Outline when an event is going to occur and who it is going to impact. Then take the date and the affected audience and outline a mini-communication plan for each event. Assign a team lead, draft a project brief and then bring each of these plans together to form the master action and impact calendar.

3. Form a Communications Team, Outline Roles and Designate a Leader. There is a reason the wedding planning industry is so lucrative: It’s necessary! On the big day you need everyone to understand their role. From the CEO to the tellers and marketing VPs to the CIOs, the same is true during a merger.

Your communications team does not only consist of your marketing departments. They are a huge part of the team, but they cannot be the only ones making the communications a success. 

It is critical to form a broad organizational communications team, outline roles and designate a leader. In a wedding, the bride has a specific role, as does the groom, the officiant and the members of the wedding party. For the ceremony to go smoothly, each person must understand and execute their role, but also understand the role of the other members of the party.

In your credit unions’ case, the CEOs are going to handle different types of communications from those of your tellers. And your CIOs should be communicating with employees and vendors.

Your communications team leader, just like the wedding planner, needs to be managing the master calendar, routing communications to the appropriate party and following up to make sure everything is covered.

Send Thank-You Notes: Capitalize on Your Merger

You’ve done it! Months and months of hard work, careful planning and now the merger is complete. Provided all things went smoothly and even if they didn’t, the reality is you are now legally merged. You are wed. You are one organization, serving one membership. Your households are combined. You are one credit union, with one big, extended family! 

Though the ceremony is over, you do not get to leave on a two-week honeymoon. The work has just begun. Just like at a wedding reception, you need to have a receiving line and thank your guests for sharing in your big day. On the day you merge, your credit union leaders need to be making the rounds and saying thank you to the members and your employees.

Call the credit union family members who you invited to the get-togethers. Find out how they are doing. Ask if they need any help and tell them where to find information and get answers to their questions. Most importantly, thank them for believing in you, for making it possible for the merger to happen, and welcome them to the family. These members are your key to understanding your new membership and will play a pivotal role in the success of your new organization for years to come.

Effective communication during a merger is vital to success. Help your members stay engaged and embrace the new organization. They will love their new credit union, provided you take the time and make the effort to welcome them to your family.

Bryn C. Conway, CUDE, principal of BC Consulting, LLC, is based in the Washington, D.C. area, is a lover of all things “credit union” and has been at the forefront of credit union merger communications.