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Sam Brownell CEO & Founder Of CUCollaborate

CUCollaborate is a consulting, software development, and digital marketing company that helps credit unions grow. Sam Brownell, its CEO, seeks to help credit unions beat banks. The company focuses on three major areas: consulting, software, and marketing. In this episode, he joins Mark Treichel to share how they have found most of their clients' growth problems in these areas and helped overcome them through their holistic approach that outlines the best growth plan for credit unions. If you are looking to beat banks and maximize your impact, then don't miss this opportunity to learn how in this conversation with Sam and Mark!


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Sam Brownell CEO & Founder Of CUCollaborate

I'm excited to be joined by Sam Brownell of CUCollaborate. Sam, how are you doing?

I'm doing well. Thank you.

I'm glad to hear it. You are the Cofounder and CEO of CUCollaborate. You've got some other things that you are heavily involved in as well, but we are going to focus a little bit on CUCollaborate and the things that you have going on there. You want to give maybe a quick summary of CUCollaborate and your journey to CUCollaborate and then we can go from there?

It's probably easiest for me to start with my journey to CUCollaborate, so I started working at Callahan & Associates straight out of college. I've worked there for six years. I started as an intern and ended up in charge of sales account management, product management, and product development. I left to start CUCollaborate. If I'm being entirely honest, the easiest way for me to describe it is if I went on Shark Tank during the first five years, then I was pitching them on investing in CUCollaborate. I don't know if you've seen the show before, but it was a hobby, not a business. I wasn't making real money or doing much.

What I found out was making products essentially. I was in a comfortable and good career trajectory at Callahan & Associates. I was too afraid of getting feedback from the market that I might have made a mistake by going out on my own. I didn't try selling the services I'd made in earnest for about five years. My wife got pregnant with twins and then making money became imperative for my family. I so then tried selling stuff and lo and behold, we had made the basis for probably three different companies if I was starting a company correctly.

That leads me to why it is so difficult for me to describe what we do concisely. We are a challenger consultancy that is evolving into a hybrid consultancy and software as a service provider. We help credit unions beat banks or maximize the impact they have on the communities and the members that they serve.

That's a great mission and a great cause. It's interesting hearing about the journey that you took. I had 33 years at NCUA. There were a couple of times during that journey when I thought of going out and working at credit unions. I had some opportunities to do it. I couldn't take the jump and I had the silver handcuffs of the pension and things like that. On the other side of that rainbow, after having left NCUA and being able to do some entrepreneurial things, I could see how you can put your toe in over here and put your toe in over here, but the reality of having a child brings that cashflow thing immediately to the top.

The cashflow became important. I would not wish bootstrapping a business on anyone else. I will never do it again, but it's also a good learning experience. What I learned was everything not to do because I did everything I shouldn't have done. In the last few years, things have taken off. A few years ago, we were probably 3 employees and now we are right around 60.

Every time I see you on LinkedIn, it says you are hiring again.

It's been a whirlwind. It's a much better time to stress, but still stressful. Being able to make payroll was the stress before. Now the stress is being able to meet obligations and put the foundation for the continued growth that we are seeing.

I first became aware of you either before I retired or after I had lunch with a mutual friend we have, Bob Fenner. Bob does some work with you and Bob and I have had some mutual clients. For those readers who don't know the name, Bob Fenner was the longest-term General Counsel at the National Credit Union Administration.

That's where I got to meet Bob, but he also does some things now with field of membership. I remember him saying, “You need to meet this guy named Sam. He's got a lot of neat ideas about the underserved areas and how credit unions can take advantage of the federal charter and all that.”

I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to Bob. In the startup world, they call it product market fit. We got real traction with helping with the field of membership expansion, and Bob showed us how to do that. Not from understanding the rules and regulations, but on how to put the applications together and get approval. We started three lines of business. The thing we started with and candidly is probably the smallest part of our business is technology selection. We have professional services and it started with the field of membership expansion.

Bob can recite the regulations. He has everything memorized. He knows everything better than anyone. He helped us get that off the ground, and that is it. That's what gave us the means to continue into other things. He's also helped us in helping credit unions attain and retain the low-income designation. He introduced me to Terry Ratigan and we have a couple of shared clients with inclusive, and then we learned that underserved areas and the low-income designation borrow from some of the ideas that the CDFI has established.

An underserved area has to meet the same definition as a CDFI investment area. We had made a bunch of software to do what our chief economists would like to call regulatory optimization, probably a little bit less buttoned up with the regulatory hacking, but identifying how to maximize what's possible within the roles and regulations. Our professional services are focused on getting bigger fields of membership through creative strategies and it’s the same thing for low-income designation, CDFI, and mergers. The third one is digital banking to a degree, and data analytics, too.

Along the lines of the field of membership, you have a lot of articles out there. You got a lot more now that you expanded almost like a newsroom that you have too, but we could maybe talk a little bit about that. The first time you and I chatted, you might have sent one of the articles to me. We talked about the death of the community charter.

If we are going to talk about field membership, maybe let's highlight that concept, and then maybe we could move on to some of the other things. To me, if someone's looking at field membership, that's a fork in the road that they need to understand that piece and that will help them decide what direction they might want to go.

That was a strategy that we pioneered that helped us offer something that other people can't. The strategy is there for everyone. You need software to be able to take advantage of the strategy in most cases. For most people, it's counterintuitive, but if you are a federal multiple common bond credit union in certain states and certain markets, primarily the Southwest and certain areas.

You can have what, in effect is a larger community and total encompassing the statistical area than what you can get as a community charter, which given the labels of the charters, seems weird because community charter credit unions are a single common bond that you are serving.

You serve one community as a community-chartered credit union, and that community needs to meet one of the different either presumed statistical areas, rural districts, or single political jurisdiction, or you'd have to do a narrative application. If it's an area of more than one county and the market has a total population of over 2.5 million, you would have to do an open hearing.

If you are a multiple common bond, you could have an infinite number of employer groups, and an infinite number of associations including the associations that can be paths for people to make themselves eligible. You can also have an infinite number of underserved areas. With software, when we first ran it, it was going to take our server 50 years to do all the necessary math. With software, we figured out how to draw perfectly crafted underserved areas that fit together like puzzle pieces to cover something that you wouldn't be able to get as a community charter. It's a much more flexible charter for mergers and acquisitions for growth essentially.

Just curious on the software side, when you had the startup and you were building these different things, was that something that you were doing yourself, or did you have other folks that were doing it?

I'm the worst founder imaginable. Go to things that are called hackathons. What I started doing originally is like going and trying to find a technical person. All my ideas were software ideas, but I am not a developer myself. I would go out and try to find people. I ended up meeting someone through my mother-in-law's boyfriend, who has started several offshore development firms. Honestly, it was luck that I found people.

We now have about 40 people on our development team. Initially, all was in Ukraine and now with the war, we have offices in Croatia, too. People make fun of founders who have ideas but don't know how to make them themselves but I figured out how to get it done. Coming from Callahan again, where I was in the role of both sales and account management and product management and product strategy.

Your appetite for understanding it and realizing its importance is neat. There's a mutual client that we have. They were trying to get CDFI approval, and they were really excited by that piece of software that you have, whatever the stats are and you know them better than I do.

To get this certification, they were, let's say, 8% below where they needed to be, and they were excited because you had the ability to help them. As Wayne Gretzky said, “Skate where the puck's going.” You have the ability for them to figure out good strategies. Correct me if I'm saying this wrong, but good strategies on getting to the statistics that will show that they are meeting the needs of the underserved in their area and then allowing them to become a CDFI so that they can even serve them better because of what that brings along. Maybe that's a good way to do an entry into some of the credit union performance analysis things that you've been doing.

It's a three-part story to a certain degree. There are little known, but in certain cases, valuable fields of membership benefits from having a low-income designation. Probably the most key part there is if you have a low-income designation and you are a community-chartered credit union, you can have language that includes people who participate in associations headquartered in, which is helpful language in your field of membership.

The primary way credit unions obtain low-income designations is through the analysis of their AIRES file. During their exams, the NCUA runs their AIRES file against the low-income designation tool. We had a few credit unions that we’re helping and getting a low-income designation was key. Some of them wanted to use it for non-member deposits to buy banks or to have their member business lending cap lifted.

Regardless, we had a number of people who wanted to get a low-income designation. That's how we started looking at and it's ultimately like geospatial data analysis and software, but geocoding member files. What could we get from that? First, we have honestly made way too sophisticated a tool to help credit unions get low-income designations.

It was a large client of ours in Florida to whom we showed our field of membership tool and the low-income designation tool. They are the ones who were like, “Can you do this for CDFI for us?” At that point, I had never even heard of CDFI. I was like, “Let’s dig into what this is.” Lo and behold, I was like, “We have already made the software to be CDFI software,” and we weren't aware of the CDFI software.

When you are looking at all these things, it's going to be about data analysis, enrichment, appending data, geocoding, and modeling race, ethnicity, and income, different statistical methodologies of taking credit union data, and being able to make persuasive arguments about what that means about their members. On the lid side, it's members and on the CDFI side, it's borrowers. We have made a bunch of tools that help credit unions understand what it would take for them to get CDFI certification or not. It helps them with re-certification and now we are doing some stuff that we believe will be impactful for grant writing.

Both CDFI and CDLF will be helpful for annual reports, advocacy, and community development. We have made community impact measurement software. The thing I'm most excited about is that we have made risk-based member benefit calculations down to the actual individual product that the credit union provides a single member or rolled up to the member or rolled up in a community.

What we look at is each individual member, what products they have with them, what the balance is interest rate, and their credit score. We have partnered with TransUnion, and we have several years of data now. We benchmark the risk-based pricing for that product against the average bank and then quantify how much more money that member has in their pocket because of their relationship with the credit union or because they got that product from the credit union, rather than if they have gone to the average bank to get that product. For me, especially coming from Callahan, so much of this benchmarking and performance analysis is focused on ratios that in my mind are broadly financial institution performance ratios like net income, growth, and ROA.

Part of it is responsible balance sheet management, but a lot of it is also profit-focused performance metrics. I could say safe growth performance metrics, but the thing that we are quantifying accurately for the first time will allow credit unions to focus on the value they are providing their members. We are talking to a lot of very large credit unions who are like, “Our goal is to get to be $5 billion.” Now we are there. Are we going to make it bigger enough?

WFC 45 | Credit Union
Credit Union: The CUCollaborate quantifying accurately for the first time will allow credit unions to focus on the value they're providing their members.

Are we adding zeros or how do we do more for our members?

Exactly. A lot of credit unions are run to hit a number that they see as the number that they need to get to. I'm not going to say, like survive or have the resources necessary to provide good member services, but then they get there and they are like, “How do we measure if we are providing what we want to provide our members? If we don't know how to measure that, how do we know we are improving it, doing that? How do we know if what we are doing is good relative to other people?” They’re benchmarking their members and the value they provide their members to peers. I'm excited about that.

What I'm interested in doing at CUCollaborate is having as much impact on Americans’ lives as possible. If I can help credit unions be more effective at creating value for their members and in their communities, they can have a multiplying effect if I can change the way credit unions think about the way they run their credit unions and can quantify these things and track them. Every credit union I have talked to understands that it's important to immediately get the value of knowing these numbers, but they never had a way to quantify them before. They didn't even know. If you can't measure it, it's hard to improve or focus on whether you are doing it well.

It goes to the heart of the Federal Credit Union Act and the purpose of serving people of modest means.

That part is the most interesting to me. The difference in interest rates between credit unions and banks expands the lower the credit tier. The value of a credit union’s pricing is greatest for the lowest tier of credit, but there aren't a lot of credit unions that know how to properly price risk for lower tiers of credit. I can't say that I have an out-of-the-box solution to solve that problem. I'm sure people have heard of things like open lending, CRM, or different ways of working with partners that can help them or Zest expanding their credit box to lower tiers of credit.

WFC 45 | Credit Union
Credit Union: Pricing is greatest for the lowest tier of credit, but there aren't many credit unions who know how to price risk for lower tiers of credit properly.

Whether we solve that problem or not, a thing that I'm hoping is that revealing a lot of this data will help credit unions understand. I can make a lot of prime auto loans to A-plus paper. Are credit unions’ income from that is generally going to be the smallest margin? They are creating the least benefit. This is even more of an argument to do ethical lending to lower tiers of credit because it's not only more profitable for credit unions. It's not only going to generate more capital for them to then make more loans, but also, those are the people who are improving the lives of those people the most.

Being able to measure it is something that's crucial for the tax-exempt status of credit unions. I could tell you at my time at NCUA when the American Bankers Association would come out and say, “This taxation thing is a ruse and it should go away.” NCUA could come up with some statistics and anecdotal stories of unique credit unions that are doing neat things with their members.

When it came to having an arsenal of data that shows what you described, I have never seen it put together in a compelling fashion that can, for once and for all, maybe put the argument about tax-exempt status in the background. If you've got a tool that's going to help demonstrate that, that's going to be great for “the movement.” It's going to be great for individual credit unions. You are going to hit the mark of trying to allow the people in this country who need service to be served better.

Thank you. I unsurprisingly agree. I probably have a big ego, but also am setting out to be very ambitious, and my goal is to help credit unions. The thing I had to have under my name on LinkedIn is to help credit unions beat banks. I have a few ideas that I think I will be successful with. The advocacy part is a big part of this from my perspective. We have built it so that it is scalable for a $5 million credit union. It is built right off the AIRES file.

I'm sure you are familiar with Project Zip Code. Credit unions can tell their own story to their representatives, but also trade advocacy groups could leverage the data to make the case for the credit union’s overall story. I'm sure that there are going to be credit unions that load their data, and it's not going to tell the best story. You could have a negative member benefit. It's going to be the aggregate story that will be most compelling. There are even cases where it's appropriate to have a negative member benefit, especially if they are needing to build capital. The way I see running a credit union is ultimately going to be about balancing profit or net income against member benefit.

Trade advocacy groups could leverage the data to make a case for credit unions for the overall story.

Anytime you are making a positive member benefit, you are effectively giving up some amount of profit to the member and it is a form of a dividend. Credit unions in different situations should be managing the balance of member benefits against net income differently. I could see some of our clients coming in and being told a story that hopefully would be eye-opening, but might not be something they are exactly eager to put in front of their members or board. In aggregate, the data will come out to tell a positive story and give industrywide data. It's important for defending the tax exemption.

This is my own personal issue, and there are many cases for establishing partnerships through charitable giving. I see so many credit unions doing all of these charitable or huge donations nonprofits, and I want them to at least be able to have the data to understand, “Is that nonprofit having as positive a social impact as your own credit union?”

Credit unions should take pride in the fact that they are lending to lower-income or subprime borrowers. They can have a huge change in someone's life. I'm not going to name a specific nonprofit but is giving to a nonprofit the best way to deploy capital to improve the community? There will be cases where it's not. They should put it towards capital and grow more and make more loans.

I would tend to agree with you. As you are walking through a different sample, credit unions are popping into my head. I always think of the bell curve. You know this better than I do, but the data always seems to lay out in a bell curve. You are going to have 2 or 3 standard deviations over to one side where people are providing unbelievable benefits to the member.

You are going to have the flip side of that, maybe where they are not providing as much benefit. They think they are, but the stats might show that in reality, they are not, and then there's that big chunk in the middle. The big chunk in the middle is easier to move one way or the other. It's hard to go from the left end of the bell curve to the right end of the bell curve. Having access to that data provides them with the context so that they can build a better strategic plan. They can do better risk management relative to that. They can look at what it is long-term they are trying to achieve.

We see things the same way, 100%, I agree. I love credit unions. Part of the reason I love credit unions that I'm dedicating my life ultimately to credit unions is because they can have a positive impact on the communities they serve. There's this whole thing of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). The things that you track and measure, you run your organization to optimize those things that you focus on.

This is a piece of information that credit unions need to know to properly run their credit unions because if all of the formulas that you are tracking are the same statistics that a bank would track, you are going to behave like a bank in the end. It's a long-term view here but change the culture. Tracking different numbers and a number that, in particular, will accurately quantify what it means to be successful as a credit union. As an industry, credit unions do, but on a more individual case-by-case basis.

If you don't measure it or you are measuring the wrong things, you don't know what you might be missing.

No fault to anyone. If there's no way to measure it, you can't know.

You go back to those anecdotal stories as opposed to raw numbers and things like that. I have got your website up in front of me and under the software tab, there are six choices. You got AnalyzeCU, ExpandCU, JoinCU, Business Development Software, FOM Eligibility API, and DiscoverCU. The ones that we have been talking about right now, is that a seventh one that's going to be added to this?

That's AnalyzeCU. It’s the data analytics platform and consortium where credit unions load their AIRES. We do li