When the West Indian Federal Credit Union closed its doors in 1999, the Hartford Healthcare Federal Credit Union stepped in and welcomed its members.
Nearly a decade later, Hartford Healthcare’s bond with the region’s West Indian community — which has a population of more than 25,000 in Hartford County — is even stronger, thanks to the credit union’s recent partnership with a credit union in Trinidad.
The joint venture between the SFCCU Credit Union Society Limited of Trinidad and the Hartford Healthcare Federal Credit Union is the third of its kind in the state and one of 26 nationally that promote cooperation between credit unions worldwide.
Hartford’s couldn’t have come at a better time.
As the U.S. economy falters, doubts are creeping in for some of Hartford’s West Indian population about the safety of the country’s financial institutions.
At the same time, many West Indian families are moving into their fourth generation in Connecticut, obtaining wealth, buying homes and planning for their financial futures.
The Trinidad partnership seeks to reassure West Indians that investing money here is safe.
“We are trying to gain more credibility in the eyes of the community,” said Carol Bayreuther, president and CEO of Hartford Healthcare.
Establishing credibility and a connection with members of the West Indian community was one of the reasons George Scott, owner of Scott’s Jamaican Bakery on Albany Avenue, helped establish the West Indian Credit Union in 1994.
“There was a sense that it would be something the community could identify with. It was up and running successfully for a few years, but it didn’t grow at a pace it needed to,” he said.
Even so, there is still a demand for a financial institution that serves the unique needs of the West Indian community.
Hartford Healthcare’s partnership with the Trinidad credit union is a step in that direction. West Indians that join Hartford Healthcare, which currently has 12,000 members and $29 million in assets, will see immediate benefits.
For example, the credit union is looking to partner with a company that owns 178 teller machines in the state, many of which are located in places that would be easily accessible to the West Indian population.
The credit union also has a pay card that allows individuals to send money to family members back home in the West Indies free of charge. That would help people avoid purchasing money orders, which can cost as much as $11 per transaction.
Also, the partnership is laying the groundwork for a possible international credit union system that would exclusively serve members in Connecticut and the West Indies. “We are doing what we can to meet their needs,” Bayreuther said.
The success of the partnership will depend in part on the Hartford Healthcare’s ability to become more familiar with the financial needs of the West Indian population, some of which are culturally unique.
For example, in West Indian culture, it’s better to be viewed and treated as an owner of something rather than simply a consumer, said Annie Lazarus, chief compliance officer at Landmark Partners in Simsbury and one of the founders of the West Indian Credit Union.
For that reason, as much as 20 percent of the state’s current West Indian population still participates in a savings and credit program referred to as a “Partner,” which dates back to the time of slavery in Africa during the 1500s.
A Trusting Partner
In a Partner, a group of people contribute a certain amount of money each week. At the end of the week, one member receives the total contribution, referred to as a draw. The process works like this: the group’s banker – usually an established member of the community – receives and manages contributions from each member of the group on a weekly basis, usually during a designated time of day and week. The banker then manages the money and determines the order in which members can make their draw.
That system was brought to Connecticut by first generation West Indians who migrated here during World War II, when they took to the tobacco fields left vacant by farmers drafted into the army.
Many times people use it to pay off a loan or to put a down payment on a home, Scott said.
The partner system is still widely used today because of the ownership role it gives to each member. Bank customers don’t enjoy that status, he added.
“West Indians have a more favorable view of credit unions than banks,” he said.
Lazarus agrees. “Credit Unions reflect everyday people, small town values, and less bureaucracy,” she said. Lower fees and higher returns on deposits also make credit unions an attractive option, Lazarus added.
But to Bayreuther, the partnership represents more than just a financial pact.
“It’s a bond of friendship,” she said. “We are establishing a framework for future relations.”