The United Nations Federal Credit Union is surprisingly similar to other credit unions. For one thing, it's relatively small. At $3.7 billion in assets, it ranks as the 28th largest credit union nationwide, according to a list published by American Banker, a sister publication of BIC. But in the overall financial services industry, it would be considered a small-fry, ranking among community banks.
Its location is also fairly normal, by New York standards. It's not in a super-secret underground bunker that one imagines upon learning that the United Nations has a credit union. Instead, it's on the third floor of an office building in midtown Manhattan, across the street from the famous UN building. Once you get through the building's security checkpoint-which, in one departure from the industry, rivals that of some airports-the lobby of the credit union is even on the small side.
It has the typical brochures on mortgages, savings accounts and credit cards. There is also a branch in the main UN building, which is now closed for renovations. (None of the Manhattan buildings are considered the headquarters of the credit union; that would be a couple of miles away in Queens.)
So it may not be a surprise to learn that the wealth management unit of the credit union shares similarities to other bank and credit union programs. For one thing, there are only four advisors, all based in New York, plus program manager Jules Mbogi. And when Mbogi talks about the secrets of the credit union's success, he sounds much like any other any program manager, citing referrals and "incentivizing" employees as keys to growing their business.
And lest you think there may be a language barrier, never fear. Almost all UN employees speak English, even the ones in far-flung countries most people couldn't find on a marked map. And there is little worry of currency fluctuations since most UN employees are paid in U.S. dollars.
There isn't even any exotic travel for the reps, since many of the UN members do their own traveling and come to New York often enough to see their advisors when they're in town.
Mbogi also sounds like a typical program manager when he talks about the growth potential for the credit union program. With about $240 million in assets under management at a $3.7 billion institution, he feels the program has room to grow. His near-term plan is to further home in on the investment needs of members and try to match the 7% to 8% growth that the credit union has enjoyed recently.
The credit union even has a typical third-party marketer: Raymond James. Indeed, if one really squints at this normal state of affairs in search of a surprise, this may be it: The United Nations Federal Credit Union offers its members an array of global investments by way of a third party.
It is fitting that the UN offers a credit union, more so than almost any other employer. Last year was the UN's "international year of the cooperatives." The yearlong celebration went beyond the scope of credit unions or even the financial industry. Indeed, it served as an education effort on the cooperative business structure in all sectors. Coops big and small (right down to small food coops in the trendy areas of Brooklyn) participated in events and discussions around the world.
The United Nations Federal Credit Union has almost 100,000 members scattered across the globe. About one-third of the credit union's members are in the U.S. The rest are based overseas. The new growth is coming from that two-thirds, Mbogi says.
Its roster covers all corners of the world, with members in 205 countries and territories, according to its last annual report. (By comparison, the U.S. Department of State only recognizes 195 countries, according to its website.)
Easy on the Risk
So despite the many similarities to the rest of the industry, being a small financial institution that serves current and former UN employees (or, as its logo says, "serving people who serve the world") gives it some inherent differences from other similarly sized institutions.
For one thing, being in so many countries means that its competition does not come from the other credit unions. It comes from global institutions like Citibank and HSBC, Mbogi explains.
Also, the credit union's members are very interested in socially responsible investments, Mbogi says. Partly because of the type of humanitarian work that many of them do, and partly due to the personalities that prompted them to seek that type of work to begin with, they are intensely interested in doing well by doing good.
However, the SRI investments the credit union currently offers are only suitable for U.S. residents, he says, and therefore are not viable for two-thirds of the membership.
Another common trait among the program's members is a disinterest in risk, Mbogi says. Even though many live and work in emerging market countries, they also see firsthand the riskiness in life.
He had no hard data connecting these two things, but he suggested that it prompted them to seek safety when it comes to their investments.
That socially responsible mind-set has permeated the entire organization as it strives to be a "good citizen of the world," according to the credit union chairman's letter to members. This manifests itself in a number of ways, from its "green" initiatives at its headquarters that include energy-efficient light bulbs and efforts to reduce water usage, to its global partnerships that strive to end hunger and poverty, improve education and health, empower women and combat AIDS.
Some of its global partnerships include the Kilimanjaro Initiative, which raises money and awareness for East Africa and involves credit union staff participating in a climb to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro; helping with funding the Floating Hospital, a charity pediatric clinic in New York; and Women In Need International, which helps fund scholarships for young girls from poor families in Bangladesh, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan.
So despite the unexpected similarities to the rest of the industry (the "normal" office, the small advisor force)-not to mention the robust business of the program-the takeaway is that the United Nations Federal Credit Union is indeed different in much bigger ways than most advisors would have imagined.