United Federal Credit Union marks progress, reflects on past

Southwest Michigan financial institution welcomes 95-year-old co-founder for a tour to witness its recent growth.
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President and CEO Terry O’Rourke, left, tours UFCU with co-founder John Conrad. Courtesy United Federal Credit Union

United Federal Credit Union has been at the center of a whirlwind of progress over the past few years, but it also recently stopped to reflect on its roots.

The St. Joseph-based credit union founded in 1949 said it strives to deliver personalized, in-person service, balanced with an innovative digital experience to meet members’ growing expectations of what they need from their financial institution.

The credit union recently opened a new, approximately 80,000-square-foot headquarters in St. Joseph to grow its diverse workforce, expanded its branch footprint into new towns including South Bend, Indiana, and Springdale, Arkansas, bringing it up to 42 locations in six states, and it launched new remote banking services such as its Mya AI-chatbot and upgrades to its mobile app. 

While United is looking to its future and its ability to help more members than ever before, the institution also is taking the time to reflect on the values it was built on and honor those who were pioneers in the credit union’s founding 72 years ago.

In July 2021, United welcomed one of its founding members to visit to the new St. Joseph headquarters. John Conrad, 95, saw firsthand how far the small credit union he helped launch has grown. Conrad was the first auditor for Nineteen Hundred Employee Credit Union, which would go on to become United Federal Credit Union. He also sat on the credit union’s board of directors, including serving time as board president.

Before he became a founding member of the credit union, Conrad was a World War II veteran who enrolled in a wounded veteran training program to learn accounting. He took those skills and landed a job in the payroll department for Whirlpool Corporation. While Conrad’s job made him a natural fit to help start the credit union, he said his real passion to help others in St. Joseph came after a bad experience at another financial institution.

“I needed a loan to get a furnace for the house I was building,” Conrad said. “I went to the bank after I had been working on the house, and I wasn’t dressed the best. I said, ‘I’d like a loan.’ (The banker) looked at my clothes and asked if I worked in a factory. I told him I worked in an office. He kept asking me questions, including who I worked for. I ended up getting the loan, but the way I was treated convinced me we needed a better way to get loans. The credit union did that for us, and I have been a member ever since.”

Conrad, along with seven others, officially founded Nineteen Hundred Employee Credit Union in 1949. At that time, it only served Whirlpool employees and had around 500 members. Instead of the expansive headquarters and dozens of branches United operates out of today, credit union business was conducted out of a lockbox kept inside a Whirlpool building until its first freestanding branch opened in October 1963.

“We wanted to welcome people into the credit union and tell them what we could do for them — make them feel at ease,” Conrad recalled about the founding members’ motives.

It is a mindset United President and CEO Terry O’Rourke said is just as important to the institution today as it was in the late 1940s.

“We want to strive to continue the legacy John and our other founding members began — showing respect and kindness toward others we encounter. That includes not only our members, but one another, no matter how busy we are,” he said.

While the values the credit union was founded on have remained the same, the number of members United serves has grown to more than 180,000.

“I’m very proud. I’m amazed by how much United has grown,” Conrad said. “I’m proud as can be to see what’s happening with credit unions all over the country. It does my heart good.”

As United continues looking toward the future and how to improve the service it provides members, Conrad offered a simple piece of advice to current employees and leaders.

“Treat people with respect. Be nice to them,” Conrad said. “And compliment people when they do their job right.”

Conrad’s guidance resonated with members of Team United, including O’Rourke, who indicated those words are key to the foundation of all exceptional leadership.

“It was simple but powerful advice,” O’Rourke said. “John’s words are something we can reflect on in our daily interaction with members, each other and the people in our community. It is also an important reminder that even though we’ve grown so much in 70 years, we come from humble beginnings built on timeless values.”

United Federal Credit Union consists of more than 180,000 member/owners worldwide and manages assets of over $3.7 billion. Its corporate offices and main branch are in St. Joseph, with additional branches in Arkansas, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio. More information is at UnitedFCU.com.

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