MSUFCU: Innovating for your community

MSUFCU: Innovating for your community

Benjamin Maxim, Chief Digital Strategy & Innovation Officer at MSUFCU, on helping drive innovation to better serve local communities

It’s not often you find someone who has worked at one company for over a decade, but Benjamin Maxim, Michigan State University Federal Credit Union’s (MSUFCU) Chief Digital Strategy & Innovation Officer, is one of them.

Now in his 16th year at MSUFCU, Maxim’s first role there was as a web developer. Joining at the height of the recession after the collapse of global housing markets in 2007, Maxim says he was “just happy to have a job” at the time.

Initially “planning to stick it out until finding something else” he wanted to do, little did Maxim know he had already landed at the organisation that would define the rest of his career.

“I immediately fell in love with the credit union mission of people helping people and felt it gave meaning to a career in technology that might be absent at other bigger tech firms.  I had only ever had an account with a credit union, never a bank, so it was probably meant to be.”

A series of mini careers amid professional and business growth

From web developer to Chief Digital Strategy & Innovation Officer, Maxim has been able to keep his drive by being challenged with new experiences during his time at MSUFCU. 

“I have a leader who I’ve reported to for most of my career, who has been so supportive and allowed me to follow a path of technology and innovation in a series of mini careers along the way. I haven’t just done the same thing for 16 years,” explains Maxim. 

From web development to iOS development and then development management, Maxim has been involved with almost all MSUFCU has to offer. Helping build the credit union’s internal web operations, Maxim then found himself building MSUFCU’s new digital banking solution, a transaction solution “similar to Venmo or PayPal”, and mobile remote deposit capture software.

Working across the credit union’s broad technological infrastructure, Maxim was then asked to lead MSUFCU’s innovation programme, after building UX, QA, and development teams, the latter of which is now 25-person strong. Now three years into the role, Maxim has already helped develop an innovation lab and an MSUFCU investment arm – Reseda Group – where Maxim serves as Chief Technology Officer.

Growing alongside the credit union, Maxim is grateful he gets “to be involved in everything from start to finish”. And, although admitting his dream job would have seen him at a major tech company like Apple or Google, he “would’ve been a little fish in a massive pond”. At MSUFCU, Maxim gets to be a big fish, and as he grows, so does the pond.

Leveraging tech to improve financial access and literacy

It is in this way that Maxim and MSUFCU have become one and the same after 16 years, with a joint path for progression. As Maxim puts it: “Our mission and focus now is to increase financial access, increase financial literacy, and among many of the other things we are trying to do, build up our communities, making them a place people want to live, work, and enjoy.

“This gives me an aim to build innovations around these values, putting our technological focus into ways of serving our communities and ultimately our members.”

With the spread of fintech innovation on an ever-upward trend, industry-wide conditions are perfect for Maxim and MSUFCU to achieve their goals. Many fintechs are designed to offer ways of improving financial access, which Maxim leverages to support underserved areas of the credit union’s different communities. 

“At MSUFCU we have a lot of student accounts. The question is how do we keep them interested and engaged including after they graduate? How do we get them excited about credit unions when they think all they need is a Venmo instead of a bank account?

“For me, the goal is to create new products and digital member experiences that take advantage of AI, machine learning, blockchain, and other emerging technologies that help personalising the experience for younger members (and really all members) to get them products that are the right fit and are the most convenient for them.”

Not content on providing ways to just take MSUFCU above the competition, for Maxim, it’s important to share new innovations and tech products with the wider credit union ecosystem. 

“What's unique about the credit union industry is that we like to share and collaborate, which for me is really exciting. It’s great to have a community, rather than having a singular focus, to talk about innovations, share ideas, and work together to move the whole credit union industry forward.”

Sticking to your roots

Although sharing innovations between banks and other financial institutions is typically considered counterintuitive, for Maxim, this is only natural for credit unions.

“Innovation is the core of what credit unions are. When credit unions first popped up as a result of anti-bank sentiment following the Great Depression, they were considered an innovative way to deliver financial services to people – members had control.”

“At MSUFCU, we were an early adopter of ATMs, and in the 1950s-1960s, we had one of the first female CEOs in the financial industry at the time. Today, our chatbot, Fran, is named after her.”

Serving students, faculty and staff, and alumni, MSUFCU sticks to its roots, having been founded by a selection of Michigan State University (MSU) faculty and staff in 1937.

Finding financial solutions for all university campus goers is part of the ethos and not just MSU. MSUFCU has a partnership with Oakland University, too as Oakland University Credit Union, and has recently launched two digital-only brands to further support students in their life’s financial journey in AlumniFI and Collegiate Credit Union. 

Personalising a service

Now serving a range of community sectors, including government, hospitals and local SMBs, and a wide range of ages from birth to over 100, the aim for Maxim and MSUFCU is to personalise services for each individual and business. 

Of course, finding the right mix of products for a potential member is doable following consultation, but in an era of speed and technological innovation, Maxim says it’s important to know the right product for the right person soon after they walk through the door – data and technology help us do just that. 

Partnering with over 30 fintech vendors and integrating their services has improved both the speed and efficiency of MSUFCU’s digital member experience.

Maxim says: “As financial institutions are a key enabler of people’s lives, we end up having a lot of data that we struggle to leverage on our own. One of the most innovative fintechs we’re working with is called Exagens, which specialises in the behavioural banking space. Their solution helps us unlock this bank-owned data and addresses a challenge common to all credit unions – engaging members beyond just transactions, to help grow their finances and the communities we serve.”

“They’ve become a core part of our experience strategy and together we’ve unlocked new value from our bank-owned data, and provide some 90 different highly individualized money-related engagement scenarios to our members, to know and serve them better”

Just one of MSFUCU’s many partners, marrying fintech innovation with its own proprietary data has supported the credit union in growing its member base. 

But, while leveraging tech will help find the right financial product mix for a member, another intuitive means of achieving this is improving the financial wellness of communities by providing access to financial education and promoting financial literacy of individuals and businesses. 

A credit union made in the education system, MSUFCU provides the community with a large team of financial educators. 

“We send them to schools and colleges, to be the education focus for students at all levels of understanding money management. We even lead a preretirement financial education service, education for buying a house, car, and various other budgeting tools.”

Augmentation, not replacement

Furthermore, Maxim is all too aware of the dangers that trudging too far down the tech path leads to — community disconnect. This is why when launching the likes of chatbot Fran, Maxim is always careful to make sure “it’s an augmentation of customer service, not a replacement for it”.

He adds: “Our approach now is combining digital and human service together, to create an experience that is both digital and human. Look at the pandemic. We all learned how to use video technology because it was the only choice.

“Well, we now have a video banking solution, to more easily connect to our members to our employees. This is how we combine technology to better serve and connect with our members, not distance ourselves.”

“But you always have to measure this with the members' needs and understand what their feelings are. Are they going to use it? Are they going to be receptive to it?”

One thing Maxim feels will further enhance the effectiveness of MSFCU’s customer experience is a further augmentation of the credit union’s chatbot with generative AI.

“Leveraging AI, we are able to improve our member service with our chatbot to answer simple questions. It’s just about framing what the right use case is for the technology. With Fran, you can even just type “agent” and it will instantly redirect you if that’s what you want to do, so it’s just about providing choice.”

Compliance front of mind

While implementing AI alongside machine learning and other tech innovations can boost customer satisfaction and backend processes, an important part of integrating fintech partners is to ensure technology is streamlined to the specific regulatory requirements partnering with a credit union entails.

Maxim notes: “When fintechs want to work with us, MSUFCU may be the only credit union they’re partnered with. So, along the way we are teaching them what it means to work with a credit union; what our regulations are, what our examiners care about; and what our compliance needs are.”

For Maxim, it is therefore important to make sure the onboarding process is robust and thorough. “We’ve built extensive compliance, risk and legal teams here at MSUFCU. So, for us, it’s imperative we thoroughly analyse any new partnership to make sure there are no data privacy concerns, no reputation risk, and if we’re using data, it’s important we’re permissioned properly.”

Nurturing an ecosystem

Establishing partnerships with fintech vendors is one thing, but nurturing an ecosystem, where each vendor plays into MSUFCU’s wider orchestral tune is another. While some vendors are commoditised, the “key differentiators”, as Maxim calls them (businesses tied to MSUFCU’s core banking solutions), are imperative to the credit union's functionality.

“With a payment provider for example, like Visa, if they don’t do well or integrate into the broader scope of the credit union then that stops us running our business. As a result, we focus heavily on getting the right balance between our different vendor partners. But, we want these integrations as it makes us a stronger company and helps make them a stronger partner.

“We really want to nurture these bonds and share them with the greater credit union industry. That’s why we formed our wholly-owned Credit Union Service Organization (CUSO), Reseda Group, to start making investments in fintechs, to make sure we have the right partners on board and be a strategic advisor for them too.”

A fintech future

With a new branch recently opened in Detroit, MSUFCU is keeping its commitment to an in-person credit union experience, alongside the implementation of tech to create an omnichannel customer experience. 

Maxim hopes the credit union's growth will only continue. He concludes: “One of our major focuses is on branching, opening up in new markets while improving the offering in the places we’re already in.”

“So, we’re all about scale at this stage and we plan to overhaul all our digital channels to better support the fintech partnerships we have. This will make it easier for us to play, test new technologies in our ecosystem and pull it back if it isn't working.”

“As we rework our website, online banking, our iOS and Android apps, we believe at MSUFCU that this will enable us to move forward significantly with our technology offering.”

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