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June 5, 2020

Credit Union Finds ‘Sound’ Use for Analytics Amid COVID-19 Chaos

Alex Woodie

(Andy-Dean-Photography/Shutterstock)

When the state of Washington imposed stay-at-home orders in early March to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, it upended life for millions of people. Many businesses in the area simply closed, but thanks to a newly implemented data warehousing and analytics system, Sound Credit Union crafted a strategy that not only helped its customers, but also kept workers employed.

Sound Credit Union (SCU) is one of the largest credit unions in the greater Seattle area, with 29 branches and nearly 30,000 ATMs around the Puget Sound, the body of water that lends the business its name. With nearly $2 billion in assets, the credit union hosts 135,000 consumer accounts, and provides banking services to another 5,000 businesses.

In 2018, the credit union adopted a suite of data warehousing and analytical software from Information Builders for use across the business. The package, dubbed the Analytical Data Mart System (ADMS), was implemented to run alongside Symitar Episys, the core banking system from Jack Henry & Associates that SCU relies on to manage its customers’ accounts.

Over the course of a 12-month period, SCU adopted the Windows-based ADMS to provide reports, charts, and dashboards for a range of use cases, including lending, finance, operations, and marketing. The credit union relied on the software to make a range of day-to-day decisions, such as tracking lending activity, optimizing staffing levels, tracking cash outlays, and so on.

Sound Credit Union owns 29 branches in the Puget Sound region

When COVID-19 hit, SCU suddenly discovered several other uses for the ADMS package, which comes with Information Builder’s WebFOCUS visualization tool, a data model, and data integration tools from its iWay subsidiary.

For starters, with its 29 branches closed to walk-in traffic, SCU’s online banking platform experienced a big increase in usage. It has also seen a boost in members using the drive-thru windows for banking activities. These changes provide the credit union with the opportunity to use the ADMS software to examine customer behavior in greater depth.

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“We have seen an increase obviously in the usage of those channels and the number of signs in and things of that nature, so we’ll continually watch it,” says Troy Garry, the CFO of SCU. “Will members continually utilize those digital channels when they get back to normal? That’s a TBD.

With so many people out of work, the ability of workers to pay back loans has been a big concern. SCU was a preferred lender under the Small Business Administration (SBA) loan program, and it administered emergency loans under the U.S. Government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). But it utilized the Information Builders tools to build a model that allowed it to go one step further and ascertain the financial health of its members.

“We quickly build a monitoring tool of members who receive unemployment,” Garry tells Datanami. “Then out of those, what types of loans do they have, and how can we reach out and assist them in deferring loan payments, maybe assist in debt consolidation and things of that nature.”

SCU doesn’t typically do a lot of outbound calling, Garry says. But thanks to COVID-19, it ramped up communications with its members to let them know about ways the credit union could help them through the crises. The response to that work has been rewarding, Garry says.

“We’ve gotten very positive feedback from members,” he says. “We’ve had many member thank us. They’re very appreciative. They say, it’s nice to know you’re there for me when I need you, and things of that nature. So they’re just really thankful.”

During the early days of the crises, people were hoarding certain items, such as toilet paper and flour. Apparently, they were hoarding another disposal item – cash – which is an important thing to know if you run a credit union.

“We saw an increase in cash withdrawals early on, so we started monitoring branch cash and how much cash are we burning through, and do we have to order more cash,” Garry says. “Managing those resources and different things — all those just did not exist before we had this IBI tool.”

SCU’s branches have been open during the crises, but only for appointments made in advance. As a result, the need for tellers and other employees in the branches has been lower. But rather than furlough those employees or lay them off, SCU has found other work for many of them to do – and it just happens to be analytics related.

SCU has been running the Symitar software for more than 20 years, and so it’s quite familiar with the data model and the intricacies of the Symitar data format. But it’s made 17 acquisitions of other credit unions over the years, and not all of that historical data has been normalized into a model that SCU can easily use.

The credit union had been preparing to outsource much of that data normalization work of historical data as part of its investment in ADMS and its overall data analytics strategy. But instead of outsourcing that work, the COVID-19 crises presented SCU with an opportunity to get the work done in house.

“We actually have about 21 re-purposed employees from branches and other places that are actively working the data cleanup,” Garry says. “We have lists that we were going to outsource to a third-party to help us. But why outsource it now?  If we have employees that can do it let’s just spend the money internally, so we have been able to retain employees.”

The ADMS and WebFOCUS tools have been a “lifesaver” for Garry and his team at SCU, which has developed more than 30 different dashboards during the COVID-19 crises. The credit union invested time and money into ensuring that the data warehouse is pulling data not just from Symitar, but from all the other ancillary systems that the credit union needs. In fact, SCU has made so much progress that Information Builders is actually teaming up with SCU to offer data integration templates based on the work done at SCU.

While Excel is still used at SCU, the investment in Information Builders’ data analytics software has significantly expanded the number of internal SCU users who can analyze data and find creative solutions to tough operational problems presented by COVID-19 beyond the number of Excel junkies in the credit union.

“Excel used to be everyone’s friend here,” Garry says. “But there was no easy way to parse out different levels of things without getting a huge data dump into Excel. And then it was usually a few of us in the organization who could run pivots and different within Excel to really break down the data and parse it out in a meaningful manner. Was that the best use of everyone’s time, the ones who can do that? The answer is no – not always. So it was very, very difficult.”

SCU has also benefited from improved data engineering and ETL work, since the ADMS implementation came with iWay data management and data governance tools and workflows. Without those data movement processes being automated, the data engineering effort to respond to COVID-19 would have been 100% manual, Garry says.

“It’s one of those things where you don’t even know where to start,” he says. “It would have taken days if not weeks, if ever, to get some of the outputs that we’re getting. We’ve always known that the data is there. But what the Information Builders tool does is it brings it all together.”

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