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Local banks and credit unions seek more respect in Phoenix

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The image of “the big 4" banks (i.e., Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Chase and Citibank)” was clobbered during the economic meltdown, and despite a proliferation of new credit cards and heavy advertising, continue to be looked upon with suspicion. High fees, deteriorating customer service, elimination of community liaison personnel and a suspicion that top executives got away without punishment, all contribute to customer dissatisfaction, especially in non-headquartered states, like Arizona. In response, Local First Arizona (LFA), a business association, which champions businesses headquartered in Phoenix, hosted a workshop at the Valley Ho Resort & Spa on February 18, 2014, to promote the use of local banks and credit unions.

Kimber Lanning, founder of LFA, gave a shocking statistic to lead off the workshop: 96% of Arizonans’ bank money flows out-of-state. Attendees of the Bank Local! event got to hear presentations from eight banks and credit unions, which have headquarters in Arizona. People were interested to hear the various histories, and what makes each of them unique and popular with their customers.

For example, Meridian Bank, which started in Wickenburg over 30 years ago, has eight branches and specializes in commercial real estate and loans. Meanwhile, Gateway Bank has only been around since 2007, and has only one branch in Mesa, but is an important asset in the Valley because it focuses on non-profits. One of its representatives—Donald Thompson is known as “Father Don” because of the excellent service he provides to so many churches. The relatively new West Valley Bank, which was founded in 2006, does just that: its priority is on residents in Goodyear and Buckeye, though it recently opened a branch in Scottsdale. Its forte is commercial lending. Meanwhile, the well-known Desert Schools Credit Union, which was started by teachers for teachers, now is the largest local financial institution, servicing over 300,000 shareholders via over 50 branches throughout the Valley.

While each local bank or credit union had specialties, there were several qualities they all shared. Their pricing is competitive and the decision-making is local. With management (including board members, managers, etc.) residing in the state, underwriting and decisions on loans can be made quickly, and with more sensitivity to local conditions. They tend to be conveniently automated (e.g., mobile banking, remote depositing, opening accounts by phone) and offer widespread no-fee ATM service. All of them tout their excellent customer service, tailoring products and services for their customers.

The LFA members learned a lot about, and were very impressed with, institutions they may not have heard of before that evening. Lanning talked about having sessions like this more often. The more Phoenix residents can invest in their own local institutions, the greater the access to jobs and financing for business growth, and the more viable and lasting this economic recovery will become.

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