If not for Apple Pay, many credit unions would be stuck in the past.

"In our 81 year history, we're not really the pioneers of innovation in fintech," said Scott Young, Pentagon Federal Credit Union's vice president of card services.

Seth Schafer, vice president of operations at Rivermark Community Credit Union, added: "Your staff are not natural innovators … if you put a suggestion box out there, there's gonna be a lot of [suggestions like], 'We want to eat bagels on Friday.' "

But when Apple came knocking on their doors to sign up credit unions for Apple Pay, these companies saw an opportunity to change their ways and start acting like nimble, modern financial institutions.

"Apple Pay was probably one of the first things for us, that we had to move very quick," said Kristen Hinton, the debit and prepaid portfolio manager at Vystar Credit Union.

All three executives discussed their experiences at SourceMedia's annual PayThink conference this week in New Orleans.

One of the key changes Apple forced upon Vystar was simply disallowing a slow, bureaucratic contract negotiation. "Apple said, 'here's the contract, you can't make any changes,' and that was something that was very new to us," she said.

This approach has informed Vystar's philosophy, proving to the credit union that it could innovate faster than it was accustomed to. A later project — implementing a new system for handling Reg E claims — moved ahead much faster than a non-member-facing project normally would have, she said.

At Rivermark, Schafer's philosophy has become, "fail fast, fail cheap." Credit unions are not the same as national banks, and thus they can take bigger risks on smaller audiences, he said.

Schafer also had to learn to break his company's reliance on what its vendors could and could not do for it. Rivermark's vendors were not always able to add features to its website as quickly and smoothly as the credit union desired, so the end result was an online banking site that "looks like a garage sale," he said.

The credit union decided that the best approach to this problem was to develop a "top layer" in-house, Schafer said. This allowed the credit union to re-render any Web content with its own style and branding, providing a consistent look regardless of whose technology it was using.

Pentagon Federal Credit Union had the challenge of changing its internal culture to one that had a younger and more dynamic way of thinking, Young said.

In part, this was achieved by developing a credit union-branded mobile app for internal use only; this ensured that the credit union's staff was as tech-savvy as its members expected it to be. The credit union also put together an internship program, giving it access to a younger group of idea-makers, Young said.

"Historically, we have not been the ones that jump on technology very fast but we have since, in the past few years, adopted more of an early adopter perspective," he said. "If your credit union isn't really a large innovator, there is still time."

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