BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS firstname.lastname@example.org
Traverse City Record-Eagle
— TRAVERSE CITY — Paul Chichester entered the tiny brick building and stooped to pet Gracie, the miniature schnauzer who has greeted customers at Cone Drive Gears Federal Credit Union for the past two years.
Friday marked the closing of the credit union’s doors and the end of an era for Chichester and other employees of Cone Drive Operations. After more than 50 years in business, the employee credit union in the shadow of the Cone Drive plant is merging with Members Credit Union of Traverse City.
After taking care of business, Chichester exchanged hugs with longtime credit union employees Barb Weber and Dorie Rodes and accepted a cupcake in honor of their retirement. The women have been running the credit union for as long as Chichester can remember — so long, in fact, that they seem more like sisters than colleagues.
“We’ve known each other all our lives,” said Rodes, who was best friends with Weber’s sister in high school at St. Mary’s of Hannah. “We come to work some days and we’re wearing the same color, we’ve worked together so many years.”
Contrary to common belief, familiarity does not breed contempt, say the women, who often complete each other’s sentences.
“I’m not saying we didn’t have our disagreements, but we never left here angry at each other,” said Weber, who brings her dog to work with her. “We solved all our issues before we left, then we cried and hugged.”
The friends began at the credit union when it was housed in a quonset hut so cold they often had to wear boots in the winter. Back then, they did everything manually, from tracking transactions to posting dividends.
“We had a file we had to lock every night with all the members’ cards in it. All the transactions were entered by hand,” said Weber, who has worked 36 years to Rode’s 32. “And every year in winter when the plant closed for a week, we had to make new cards and transfer the information from the old card to the new.
“Everything that gets posted now on computer got posted in a great big ledger.”
At its peak in the 1980s, the credit union had about 1,300 customers — Cone Drive employees and their families, she said. But an aging and smaller employee base and limitations to the credit union — a strictly cashless savings and loan open three days a week — caused customers to dwindle to about 690.
“We can’t handle cash. We don’t do mortages,” she said. “The older generation isn’t borrowing, they’re saving for retirement. And the young people want to go online for their paperwork.”
Add to that the recent economic downturn and increased regulatory reporting brought about by the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and it makes sense that members voted for a merger with a larger credit union, said Marc McKellar, director of business development for Members Credit Union.
“There’s so much regulation now it’s almost prohibitive. You have to have a full-time person just to figure out the regulations,” he said.
Cone Drive credit union member Paul Chichester said he’ll miss the credit union’s convenient location, a stone’s throw away from the plant, and the friendly presence of Rodes and Weber.
“They’re just like family,” said Chichester, a Cone Drive shipping and receiving employee who has been banking there for 35 years.
“The wonderful thing is the personalized treatment we got,” said Mary Socha, a Cone Drive customer service employee and a credit union board member. “You’d call and say, ‘I forgot my account number,’ and they’d recognize your voice and say, ‘Oh, hi Mary.’
“It’s kind of like Andy of Mayberry.”