WATERLOO — Eighty-five years ago, hard times gave birth to one of the Cedar Valley’s and Iowa’s most enduring financial institutions — Veridian Credit Union.
In 1934, at the depths of the Great Depression, when many local banks were failing or struggling, a group of employees of John Deere’s Waterloo operations pooled their resources. They decided, in essence, they would be the bank.
“We were founded by seven employees of the John Deere Waterloo Works,” said Monte Berg, credit union president. “We were originally John Deere Employees Credit Union. Then they added John Deere employee family members.”
It was part of a movement that became widespread given the economy at the time.
“Many Iowa credit unions were charted in that same time frame,” Berg said. “1934 was kind of the peak of the Depression. You think of people, having the wisdom to do something like that, was pretty incredible. The banks, made of stockholders, were having struggles too. So people decided to take matters into their own hands and form their own financial institution.”
Because of the growth in Deere’s employment base through the mid-1970s, the separately organized credit union became the largest credit union in the state. The institution once had its offices within Deere plants. It had offices in the old clockhouse at the John Deere Waterloo Tractor Works on Westfield Avenue, as well as at Deere’s Westfield Avenue Foundry and at the Product Engineering Center in Cedar Falls. But in late 1974, the institution broke ground at the site of its current headquarters on Ansborough Avenue between Home Park Boulevard and U.S. Highway 63.
The institution faced another crossroads during another downturn 60 years after its founding, during the 1980s farm crisis. That’s when Deere trimmed its work force by nearly 10,000 employees at its Waterloo operations, after topping 16,000 in the late 1970s. The institution was going to have to reach out beyond Deere’s employment base to weather the economic storm. It did.
“We expanded to a community charter,” Berg said. The institution became the John Deere Community Credit Union — first, expanding its membership to all of Waterloo, then Cedar Falls and beyond.
“We were probably ahead of most of the community charters in the state,” Berg said. “I commend our leadership and our board at that point in time for having the foresight to realize that being linked to one employer was not healthy for a member (driven), not-for-profit financial institution.”
“It was a scary thing,” said Gaylen Witzel, a 43-year Veridian credit union board member, but one that had to be done to maintain service to credit union members.
“We diversified into the community — originally Waterloo-Cedar Falls — then added some counties in this area, like Bremer, Buchanan and Fayette,” Berg said. “Since then, we’ve continued to diversify and shift. The shift in employment at John Deere in the ’80s was a significant factor in the decision. I’m sure it was a difficult decision. If the credit union was going to continue to grow, and be successful, stable financially, they had to make a shift.”
In 1993, the credit union began opening branches within Hy-Vee grocery stores, first in Waterloo-Cedar Falls, then outside the metro area. “It’s a good partner,” Berg said of Hy-Vee. “ It was a real convenience to our members to be open seven days a week, evenings, many holidays,” concurrent with the grocery store’s hours.
In 2002, the credit union opened its first location in Cedar Rapids, then expanded into central Iowa with a merger with Deere Community Credit Union in Ankeny in 2004. By that time, the institution, always a separate organization from Deere & Co., had grown far beyond the ag-implement manufacturer’s employment base. Deere said, and the credit union agreed, the financial institution should have a name that identified it as its own, separate institution.
The color green, with which Deere closely identifies, was still symbolic of the financial insitution’s growth. So the credit union chose Veridian — drawing from the world “verdant” or green and growing, derived from the Latin “viridas” for green and “veritas” for truth. The name change was effective in 2006
“I never thought I’d ever see the day when we’d have John Deere out of the name,” said longtime board member Witzel, who worked 36 years as Deere supervisor at its Westfield operations near downtown. Credit union officials marketed the Deere name wherever they went. But, he noted, “We’re still green,” like Deere. ” We worked that into our name,” like Iowa itself, synonymous with agriculture and growing. Longtime members still remember the Deere roots.
Today, Veridian has more than 30 branches in 14 Iowa communities and two in Nebraska. It employs 850 people, 560 of whom work in Waterloo-Cedar Falls. And the company has immediate plans to add another 40 employees in various positions in Waterloo-Cedar Falls, taking it over 600 in the metro area.
In addition to its various Waterloo-Cedar Falls branches and the headquarters on Ansborough, it also has some administrative operations at 6525 Chancellor Drive in the Cedar Falls Industrial Park, in space formerly occupied by Principal Financial Group.
Today, Veridian is no longer Iowa’s largest credit union — the University of Iowa Community Credit Union has claimed that title with its growth in recent years — but Veridian is hardly complacent in meeting the challenges of holding and growing its membership base.
“Like any cooperative, any financial institution, it’s meeting the needs of our members; anticipating the needs of our members. Keeping current with technology. Being aware of economic cycles and changes in employment, unemployment.
“If you remember back to the most recent recession, 2009, we did very well during that time frame,” Berg said. “Because Iowa was largely untouched by the recession for the most part, at least minimally touched, compared to a lot of parts of the country.” As in the 1990s, when some larger traditional banks shifted focus, Veridian grew.
“We’ve had good presidents and a good board with good members,” Witzel said, all 15 of whom have stepped up to exercise leadership within the institution and in the community. All the staff and board have been involved in the community, he and Berg noted — the most visible activity being the annual Mike and Leona Adams Thanksgiving dinner.
It’s put on at United Auto Workers Local 838 by Veridian in cooperation with Local 838 retirees — harkening back to the credit union’s concurrent growth and linked fortunes with the working people who are its members in Waterloo –Cedar Falls and other communities the institution serves.
“The reason I’ve stayed so long is the culture of the organization fits closely with my personal values,” said Berg, with the organization since 1990. “It’s fun to work someplace where the people that own us are the same people that use our services. We do what’s best for our members. We do what’s best for our owners. They’re the same people. We have fun.”