Behind the story: Southern Chautauqua FCU’s John Felton featured in Buffalo Business First

John Felton, Southern Chautauqua FCU CEO

With Southern Chautauqua FCU poised to open a branch in Dunkirk this fall, John Felton, CEO of Southern Chautauqua FCU and a 2013 New York Credit Union Association Hall of Fame recipient, was recently featured in Buffalo Business First (log-in required).

The article relates how Southern Chautauqua FCU has been a part of Felton’s life since he was young, with his parents running the small credit union — then just for teachers and staff of three school districts — out of the family room of their home. Felton would later go on to join Southern Chautauqua FCU, and under his leadership, grow the credit union’s assets, expand its branches and obtain CDFI certification for the organization.

When Felton joined in 1987 to the time he became CEO in 2002, assets grew from $4 million to $10 million, and they are now at more than $115 million. Along the way, Felton came to embrace the credit union philosophy of people helping people, and in the process, making it his mission to help those who need it most.

Speaking exclusively to the New York Minute, Felton shared some additional details that led him to where he is today and his thoughts on the importance of showing members the value of credit unions.

Before joining the credit union, Felton was working as a chef in the 1980s — somewhat the path of least resistance, he admitted. His dream was to open his own restaurant. “Of course, my parents warned me about the hours, the holidays, but I didn’t listen. I had to learn what a tough industry it is,” he said. “Not that I was looking to get out, but I welcomed the chance.”

Felton knew first-hand you don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle. Any business will build loyal customers when you cater to them, and during his time in the restaurant industry he was more focused on the management of the business, rather than preparing the food, he said.

But it was that sizzle – the sizzle that made everyone who came into the restaurant feel like it was an experience that they would tell their friends about – that Felton took with him to the credit union. Felton started out by helping at the credit union during the day and working nights at the restaurant in the late 1980s when his younger brother, then in college, unfortunately became ill and took his parents’ time away from the credit union. Tragically, his brother passed away, and Felton did not think twice to leave the restaurant business and step in to help his parents.

Felton said it took some time to gain a passion for the credit union but realized very quickly that certain individuals – school bus drivers, maintenance workers, janitors, cafeteria workers – were so grateful for the loans they were able to receive from the credit union that they couldn’t obtain anywhere else, that he became inspired. The teachers utilized the credit union, but they could have gone anywhere, Felton explained.

Throughout the 1990s, Felton and the credit union continued help those considered economically or financially “fragile,” while the credit union merged with other credit unions and staff and assets continued to grow. But it was not until 1998, after attending a weeklong lending school that Felton said he really gained the knowledge necessary to deal with high-risk fragile families. “We were taught how to build the ‘parachute’ and price loans appropriately so we could benefit that member, and not turn them away,” he said. “And we could do it at a more affordable rate than they may have been paying other financial institutions.”

The credit union continues to build those “parachutes” today, enabling the operation to grant loans to those who are struggling. “We educate members about their value to us and our value to them – value and respect they might not receive elsewhere,” Felton said.

And with Chautauqua County the poorest in the state, Felton says that about 30% of members currently fall into the financially fragile category.

That’s why many members need an institution that supports them, even if they are high risk or have low credit scores, Felton said. “And when you show them how you can provide them value, such as turning high debt into affordable debt, the credit union becomes a trusted partner. There is a ton of loyalty in our membership because they understand the benefit of membership.”

As for Felton’s parents, his father passed away in the late 1990s and his mother only recently retired at age 82 – clocking more than 50 years at the credit union.

Southern Chautauqua FCU currently has branches in Lakewood, Brocton, Cherry Creek, Clymer, and Jamestown and operates three branches in local high schools that are run by students. Felton said he hopes the new branch in Dunkirk – where Felton sees a huge opportunity to support vulnerable members – will open in October.

Ironically, the new branch will be located in a former Bob Evans restaurant. “In my early days, I assumed I would buy out a restaurant and make it my own,” Felton said. “Now I’m buying a restaurant for a credit union. Board meetings used to be in my mom’s dining room and now they will be in Bob’s dining room.”

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