VyStar President and CEO Sheds Light On Credit Union's Strategy

Feb 15, 2019

In the coming months, Jacksonville residents will be seeing a lot more of VyStar Credit Union.

The Jacksonville-based financial institution last week announced a naming rights deal for the city’s sports arena, which will rebrand it as the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.

If that deal is approved by City Council, the new signs will be placed on the arena in the middle of this year at about the same time the VyStar name will go up on a 23-story Downtown building.

Our Jacksonville Daily Record news partner reports VyStar bought the building, currently known as the SunTrust Tower, for $59 million last year and is moving its headquarters to the tower at 76 S. Laura St.

But it’s not just Northeast Florida residents seeing more of VyStar.

VyStar is seeking City Council approval to put its name on its new headquarters building Downtown on what is now the SunTrust Tower.

The credit union founded in Jacksonville in 1952 recently received approval from Florida and Georgia regulatory authorities to expand its field of membership from 22 counties in Northeast Florida to 27 additional counties in North and Central Florida and four counties in Southeast Georgia.

“Everyone has this impression of credit unions that they should be small,” said VyStar President and CEO Brian Wolfburg.

Unlike banks, which expand their businesses to generate more profits for shareholders, credit unions are nonprofit organizations that historically have served specific groups with common ties.

VyStar is big already with more than 643,000 members and $8.3 billion in assets, making it the 17th largest credit union in the nation, according to Credit Unions Online.

Wolfburg, who came to VyStar in late 2017, is hoping to expand further.

“There are a lot of reasons we should pursue growth,” he said.

One is operating efficiencies, a strategy that helps financial institutions of all types. The more customers they have, the lower the cost per customer of providing services.

For a publicly traded bank, that translates into higher profits for shareholders. For a credit union owned by its members, the efficiencies mean higher interest rates on deposits, lower rates on loans and fewer fees for customers, Wolfburg said.

Expanding the geographic reach of VyStar also helps its “safety and soundness,” Wolfburg said.

“We were tightly packed in geographically for the size we are,” he said.

That made VyStar vulnerable to potential shocks to the Jacksonville economy, such as a major hurricane that disrupts business in the area. With a wider geographic reach, VyStar can better withstand a localized downturn in the economy.

The third reason for geographic growth is to bring credit union services to more people, particularly in rural counties in the region that are not well-served by financial institutions, Wolfburg said.

That doesn’t mean VyStar will be opening branches in each of the 53 counties now in its membership field. But anyone who “lives, works, plays or practices faith” in those counties can, under credit union regulations, become customers of VyStar, he said.

VyStar has 63 branches in 11 counties. It took its first step toward expanding last month by announcing an agreement to acquire Citizens State Bank, which is headquartered in Perry and also has two offices in Gainesville and one in Steinhatchee.

More acquisitions of bank branches are likely in the future.

“We are reviewing two to four potential banks a month,” Wolfburg said.

VyStar was formed 67 years ago as the Jax Navy Federal Credit Union to serve military families and civil-service employees at Naval Air Station Jacksonville.

It grew to serve Cecil Field Naval Air Station but after the U.S. Navy closed that base in 1999, the credit union decided to expand its charter.

In 2002, the credit union received state approval to open membership to anyone living or working in the five-county Jacksonville metropolitan area and changed its name to VyStar.

Wolfburg said 5 percent to 10 percent of its members are current or retired military families, but VyStar still considers its service to military personnel to be a primary role.

That fits in with its 15-year, $9.76 million naming rights deal for what is now the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.

The deal includes provisions that will make financial contributions to veterans’ groups.

“We are helping to make Jacksonville and Northeast Florida a better place to live,” Wolfburg said, and the naming rights deal is part of that.

He said it was important to keep “Veterans” in the name of the arena.

“There never was a discussion of taking any of those words out,” he said.

VyStar is seeking City Council approval to put its name on the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.

Wolfburg also hopes the VyStar name on the arena will increase its exposure. While the credit union is familiar to longtime residents, the area continues to see more people moving to the area.

“There is an aspect of elevating our brand,” he said.

VyStar expects to move 900 employees to the Downtown tower as it relocates its headquarters from a Westside office.

With renovations ongoing, Wolfburg expects the first VyStar employees to move into offices there in March and the rest will gradually relocate through the end of this year.

Besides noticing the VyStar name, Wolfburg said he hopes Downtown visitors will see the improvements to the building as a plus for the neighborhood.

“We have a long history here and are deeply rooted in the community,” he said.

Even as VyStar expands its geographic reach, “we’re never going to lose our way or where we started.”