USAA cuts ribbon on Columbus financial center, targets military-related consumers

Fort Benning imagery prime element of Veterans Parkway office’s decor

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 10, 2014 

There is a photo of a soldier saluting, and one framed with airborne training towers behind him, and yet another of the iconic “Iron Mike” statue.

Make no mistake. USAA knows its market and it is the estimated 66,000 soldiers, military retirees, veterans and family members living on and near Fort Benning.

It’s those consumers that it will be catering to as it gets up and running following Friday’s grand opening and official ribbon cutting for its first financial center in Columbus at 6501 Veterans Parkway, at the intersection of Whittlesey Road on the city’s north side.

“We’re here to serve our members,” said Larry Rosenberg, vice president of member experience with San Antonio, Texas-based USAA. “They know us for the great service and solutions we’ve delivered on the phone and online. But they’ve told us that sometimes they need to shake a hand, look us in the eye, and be more personal. So USAA is here because our members have asked us to be here.”

The 5,000-square-foot financial center in Columbus is the 19th overall for USAA, which was founded in 1922 by a group of Army officers who decided to insure themselves because they were considered too much of a risk by other insurance companies at the time.

Today, the company known as United Services Automobile Association, has about 10 million members. Historically known for its auto and home insurance products, about 30 years ago it entered financial services and now makes home and auto loans, along with everyday transactions such as deposits and withdrawals.

The financial center, which had a soft opening Dec. 17, is outfitted with computer stations and video conference rooms for customers to contact USAA financial specialists elsewhere for many of its services. There are drive-thru lanes outside, while the center has a staff of 11, nearly all of them current or former military spouses or veterans.

“In 2013, USAA made a commitment that they wanted 30 percent of their new hires to be military spouses or veterans. So they’re really keeping true to that,” said financial center manager Nicole Nebergall.

She, after all, is the wife of a Fort Benning soldier and infantryman, Sgt. 1st Class Chad Nebergall, who was at Friday’s event in his dress uniform. He’s been in the service a decade, while the couple have been in the community three years.

The manager said she was surprised with the customer traffic the center experienced during the holidays, with some people saying they had been with USAA more than 50 years.

“They’ve never been face to face with a USAA (employee), and they were literally hugging us,” she said. “They were so happy to have face-to-face contact finally.”

A special touch during the grand opening was a rendition of the “National Anthem” by retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Fred Catchings, who also happens to be the former leader of the Maneuver Center of Excellence Band at Fort Benning.

In his address, Rosenberger threw out the names of historic generals who had made their way through Fort Benning during their careers, including Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton and Colin Powell. Standing in the wings Friday also was retired Army Lt. Gen. Carmen Cavezza, who once commanded Fort Benning and served as Columbus city manager. He also headed the city’s U.S. Summer Olympic effort in 1996.

USAA enters a market already brimming with competitors and dominated by Synovus Bank, parent company of Columbus Bank and Trust. CB&T has about 63 percent of the city’s market share in terms of deposits, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data, followed by Wells Fargo with 12.5 percent, SunTrust with 10 percent and Regions Bank with just under 3 percent.

Rosenberger and Nebergall downplayed any notion that they were in position to grab a good-sized share of the other banks’ pie. But it is looking to grow the business. Of the 63,000 retirees and veterans in the area, about 30,000 are now members, with the company hoping to attract the remaining 33,000.

“Are we looking to go into competition with them? No. We’re just here to serve our members,” said Nebergall.

“We understand the military life and we are here for no reason other than to help you realize your financial goals and dreams,” she told those gathered Friday in her opening remarks for the event.

USAA, naturally, is setting up shop in military communities, with some locations having more than one financial center. Rosenberger said the company does plan to steadily roll out more locations in the U.S., but there is no word yet on whether Columbus and Fort Benning might be able to support a second branch.

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