After opening four branches in 2018, Ent Credit Union plans to accelerate its expansion with nine more locations and 200 additional employees next year.

The Colorado Springs-based financial institution, now the state’s sixth largest, has added 10 Front Range counties, $1 billion in assets and nearly 65,000 members over the past 2½ years.

CEO Chad Graves said Ent expects to reach $10 billion in assets and operate branches in all 14 counties in its service area within 10 years.

“We are a Colorado Springs success story,” Graves said. “We are seeing more and more of our members moving in areas along the Front Range, so over the next few years, we will be adding locations mostly to the north. Finding the real estate has made expanding more difficult because it takes a year or two to acquire and then go through the planning process to get the location approved.”

Ent spent much of this year broadening its Colorado Springs footprint with a full-service branch near Woodmen Road and Powers Boulevard that replaced a nearby storefront and another on the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs campus that replaced a branch near Woodmen and Interstate 25. Ent also added a branch — its 30th — near InterQuest Parkway and I-25.

Next year, Ent will add a branch near Marksheffel Road and Constitution Avenue and replace a smaller facility on the west side with a full-service branch on a site now occupied by an office building and a car wash. Ent also plans branches in Cañon City, northwest Douglas County, in Highlands Ranch, near Park Meadows mall, two in Parker and one elsewhere in the Denver area.

Ent’s growth plans come as other financial institutions are closing branches; the number of bank and credit union branches in El Paso County peaked in 2011 and the number of bank branches nationwide peaked in 2009.

Jim Swanson, president of Denver-based financial institution consulting firm Bank Strategies, said many banks are closing branches or building smaller ones because technology has allowed customers to complete more transactions online or with mobile devices.

Industry consolidation also has played a role.

“There are probably some opportunities as a result of mergers and acquisitions,” Swanson said.

Ent and other bank competitors likely are capitalizing on problems that have hit the state’s largest bank, Wells Fargo, including employees opening unauthorized accounts for customers in an effort to meet sales goals.

While the number of credit union branches has declined slightly in the past five years, the nation’s largest such institutions with assets of more than $1 billion have been adding branches.

Lauren Williams, a spokeswoman for the Credit Union National Association, said the biggest credit unions are expanding “into communities that banks are abandoning.”

Ent continues to open branches because its members “keep coming to our branches,” even though nearly two-thirds of its 332,000 members regularly bank online, Graves said.

“Members use the service that is most convenience for them at any particular time,” Graves said. “There has been a lot of predictions that online banking would lead to the death of branches, but that hasn’t happened. Consumers just want more of everything. They want choice. You still see a lot of shoppers who still want to pay with cash.”

Ent’s branches are more than just teller lines, drive-up lanes and a few desks for loan officers and investment representatives. Each location costs between $4 million and $5 million and includes self-service safe deposit box access through a biometric scan of the customer’s hand and interactive teller machines where customers can speak to a live teller via video.

Graves said Ent won’t build as many branches in Denver and northern Colorado as it has in Colorado Springs, where it is the dominant financial institution.

Ent plans a hub-and-spoke system in each metro area with a large full-service branch supporting a network of storefront and smaller facilities.

While Ent hasn’t needed much marketing in Colorado Springs (although it was a major donor and bought naming rights to the new performing arts center at UCCS), the credit union can’t rely on word-of-mouth marketing where it isn’t a household name.

Ent has built name recognition through targeted cable television and radio advertising as well as direct-mail ads, Graves said.

Ent also faces a challenge in hiring employees for its new branches, given near-historic unemployment across the state, Graves said. Ent has been hiring about 100 people a year for the past several years and employs about 870.

“Becoming an employer of choice has been a big area of focus for us in the past few years as we continue to expand. We want to continue to offer quality service, and that is all about great employees,” Graves said.

“It is getting harder and harder to find the right candidates, so we are trying to figure out how to grow them from within. We have a partnership with UCCS to find executive talent and we have recently hired a director of talent development.”

Ent also wants to become a leading financial education provider for the Front Range in areas such as basic budgeting, financial responsibility, what it means to borrow responsibly, building an emergency fund and how to save for retirement.

Graves wants to form partnerships with school districts and colleges to offer education on “the financial implications of every stage of life” and has hired a vice president of education to lead that effort.

Ent had modest beginnings, starting in 1957 with $602 in deposits from 30 members who worked at the former Ent Air Force Base, now the site of the U.S. Olympic Training Center. The base was named after World War II Maj. Gen. Uzal Girard Ent, commander of the Ninth Air Force. Ent grew quickly by serving personnel at Peterson and Schriever Air Force bases and the Cheyenne Mountain Air Station.

Ent’s fastest growth came in the 1980s as it took advantage of federal rules that allowed credit unions to add employer groups unrelated to its original membership group. The credit union eventually would serve more than 600 employer groups.

Ent also merged with four other credit unions, further fueling its growth.

But that rapid growth also led to a major financial mess in the late 1990s. Ent had failed to properly debit withdrawals from automatic teller machines, prompting the credit union to later withdraw $1 million from member accounts to fix the problem. Former Ent CEO Randy Bernstein said the credit union had grown too quickly and its computer system couldn’t keep up, forcing Ent to spend $3 million on a new system to fix the problem.

That same year, Ent shifted to a new federal charter that allowed it to serve anyone living, working or going to school or church in El Paso County. Another series of mergers extended Ent’s reach into Denver and Pueblo, and two years ago, Ent won approval to expand into Fremont County, three additional Denver area counties and parts of Adams and Weld counties.

Just months later, Bellco Credit Union, Colorado’s second-largest credit union after Ent, expanded into El Paso County but hasn’t opened any branches here. Just last month, Ent added six more counties, including the rest of Adams and Weld counties plus Larimer County, increasing its potential reach to more than 4.5 million people.

“We don’t view other credit unions as competitors. There is plenty of banking business to go around. While we do target bank customers, we don’t target members of other credit unions,” Graves said. “Slow, steady and sustainable growth over the long term is our goal so we can keep our members’ deposits safe.”

Ent now has assets totaling $5.46 billion, deposits totaling $4.53 billion and loans totaling $4.42 billion. If the credit union keeps growing at its current rate, it will pass Bank of the West by June 30 to become Colorado’s fifth-largest financial institution — after financial giants Wells Fargo Bank, U.S. Bank, FirstBank and JPMorgan Chase Bank.

Contact Wayne Heilman: 636-0234

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