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  • Writer's pictureBrian Kaas

What Fintechs and Credit Unions Can Learn from Harley-Davidson

Guest Editorial by Brian Kaas, President and Managing Director at TruStage Ventures



In today’s digital age, the credit union industry has found itself at a crossroads. Constant innovation, previously an advantage, has become a critical necessity. To remain relevant and competitive in the face of change and evolving member expectations, credit unions and fintechs must be willing to adapt and innovate.


This need has fueled TruStage Ventures, the venture capital arm of TruStage, to create an ecosystem that fosters collaboration and innovation between credit unions and fintechs. As part of this mission, TruStage Ventures held its annual Fintech Summit in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in September. The in-person event attracted hundreds of credit union leaders, fintech founders and executives, industry partners and other leagues and associations, as well as a virtual audience. There was a reason why the conference was held in Milwaukee – and it’s not just because of its proximity to TruStage’s headquarters.


Brian Kaas

Milwaukee is the birthplace of Harley-Davidson. While some may think motorcycles, credit unions, and fintechs don’t have much in common, there are a few lessons to be learned from Harley-Davidson’s rich history.


Only a few companies in the world have attained the prestigious title of an "iconic" brand and Harley-Davidson is one of them. However, the path to achieve this level of influence and brand loyalty was filled with many roadblocks.


Throughout its history, the company survived two great wars, two pandemics, a Great Depression, economic recessions, and more. Of these events, one of the most challenging times came in the 1970s, when Harley-Davidson was dubbed ‘Hardly Drivable’, the brand went out of style and the company faced bankruptcy twice. Harley's fame took a sharp decline from being the largest motorcycle company in the world in the 1920s to struggling to survive. The combination of poor family management, a decline in quality, the rapid influx of Japanese motorcycles and a lack of innovation and technological advances had a major impact on the business.


All of this led to the reinvention of Harley-Davidson in the 1980s. They rebuilt the entire company, overhauling manufacturing processes and improving their product. This allowed Harley-Davidson to maintain one of the highest reputations in brand loyalty across the globe.


So, how can credit unions and fintechs learn from Harley? Perhaps, the biggest lesson is to continually self-evaluate and innovate. For credit unions, this may be finding ways to improve both internal operations and the member experience. It can also be translating the personal service and trust of the credit union into digital channels. For fintechs, this could require testing and learning about what works and what doesn’t. Not only should fintechs evaluate their offerings but understand what the industry needs and look for ways to add value. If Harley-Davidson didn’t self-evaluate, the company may not have existed today. This serves as a reminder to continue to modernize services and operations for not only the sake of the organization but also the success of the industry.


It’s nearly impossible for credit unions to build technology that supports all the financial needs of their members. And it can be challenging for fintechs to scale their products and services without the help of credit unions’ long-standing reputation. While both can and do innovate alone, the biggest results happen when they come together to solve key industry challenges and improve the financial health of members. This collaboration combined with the constant need to innovate will drive the industry forward – and it’s exactly why TruStage Ventures remains committed to organizing events like this. 73% of those who participated in a survey following the event said they plan to follow up with relevant fintechs to discuss potential partnership opportunities.


While the road to success may look different for our industry, the ride can be less bumpy by following innovators like Harley-Davidson who paved the way. I strongly encourage credit unions and fintechs to embrace partnerships and innovation. Our industry can greatly benefit whenever we work and learn from one each other.


Brian Kaas is the president and managing director of TruStage Ventures, the venture capital arm of TruStage.

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