KATHRYN REED FOR THE NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL
August 3, 2023
Instead of retiring a year ago at age 45, which was Dave Buerger’s original goal, he launched another company based in Sonoma County.
Union Credit became a reality Jan. 1, with services being available to clients in a soft rollout that started July 17, with a complete launch expected by Oct. 1.
Buerger, CEO and co-founder of the Santa Rosa fintech startup, said, “Union Credit offers a digital loan marketplace embedded in everyday retail and financial experiences to attract new demographics and help improve member and loan acquisition in an embedded one-click lending marketplace for credit union customers.”
The $5 million in seed money came from TruStage Ventures, Marin Sonoma Impact Ventures, Array and others.
Buerger opted to stay in the working world because he wanted to help others achieve their life goals.
“There were many people involved in that first company, but they could not retire,” Buerger explained. “I thought with the second one I was going to pay it forward and give them the opportunity to be involved in something at the ground level and potentially have the opportunity to change their lives. That is the mission, that is the vision.”
He doesn’t have an end goal for Union Credit especially since it’s just gotten off the ground. It could be like his first company CuneXus and it sells, or maybe it grows exponentially and current workers take it over.
“I didn’t do any of this alone. I did not achieve all of these milestone alone. I give so much of the credit to my team,” Buerger said. That includes employees, investors and clients.
“I realized in my first journey maybe the most rewarding piece was returning money to investors. It feels great. Selling the company and the payout at the end feels great,” Buerger said. “But there are so many different forms of gratification. It’s the celebration of what you achieved together as a team. I really enjoy that aspect.”
Right now Union Credit has 16 employees.
The following is a Q&A between the Business Journal and Buerger. It has been edited for space and clarity.
What made you want to launch Union Credit in January and leave CuneXus after 15 years as CEO and its founder?
The decision to leave CuneXus, now known as TruStage Perpetual Offers, was driven by two factors: fulfilling a vision and paying it forward.
The vision centered on transforming the interaction between lenders and borrowers, leveraging data, and meeting consumer expectations with quick and easy experiences. CuneXus’ one-click perpetual approval and lending model resonated with consumers and has proven to help financial institutions of all sizes improve retention rates and boost loan volume. It was clear that the next step was to take this model out into the wider market and help all credit-worthy consumers become aware of and take advantage of the best options available to them.
With a network of industry partners, investors, and colleagues, I knew I had the resources to continue the journey. I felt there was more to accomplish, and I am delighted to be able to help the industry evolve while also giving back to many of those who supported the initial journey.
How are the two companies integral to each other?
Union Credit is sort of the “sequel” to CuneXus, now a wholly-owned technology subsidiary of TruStage, formerly known as CUNA Mutual Group. Union Credit expands the proven perpetual approval model beyond credit unions’ digital boundaries and into the open market. Together they support financial institutions’ efforts to acquire and retain members.
Union Credit will be the exclusive partner of CuneXus, offering this marketplace to the company’s nearly 250 credit union clients. The leadership of CuneXus believes in the vision of Union Credit, and the support from TruStage shows through their willingness to be the lead investor in our initial seed funding.
What does Union Credit offer financial consumers that other companies don’t?
Union Credit is the pioneering marketplace for credit unions, enabling them to provide millions of consumers the benefit of ongoing, firm credit approval and the convenience to activate personalized loan offers with just a couple clicks.
The future of open finance lies in giving consumers easy access to information and opportunities. Union Credit empowers this movement by providing consumers with full transparency into their buying power while shopping for big ticket items and at the point of sale. Displaying actual pre-approved loan rates to consumers enables them to make sound financial decisions while knowing their options. Credit unions can express their empathy for consumers’ unique financial situations by responsibly granting relevant and competitive product options that match their needs and help them attain financial wellness.
Do you envision a day when brick and mortar financial institutions no longer exist?
Perhaps, but probably not in my lifetime. While the number of physical locations may start to dwindle, I believe that branches remain a strong differentiator, especially for community financial institutions who thrive on human interaction and play a vital role in their communities. Their personalized and altruistic service as well as their community involvement, like charities, local event sponsorships, and more, set them apart from larger institutions who have larger technology budgets and can compete on different levels.
Consumer confidence in banks has been shaken. How does that uncertainty affect your company?
Right now, consumers need to feel confident in where their money is. They need to feel confident in their purchases and they need guidance and support from experts on how to properly invest and save. By placing credit unions’ competitive rates and offers in front of credit worthy consumers, we are helping them easily access affordable credit and regain confidence in banking.
What aspect about your business keeps you up at night?
If I had to pick one thing right now to lose sleep over, it would be over the things I can’t control, like the markets. My main concern is taking care of my employees and ensuring their well-being. I think about our ability to achieve our goals and build what we envisioned, and I believe we are on the right track. While market fluctuations can have an impact, people have always relied on credit and will continue to, so we’re optimistic about our future and ability to provide an unparalleled borrowing experience.
What is your approach to making tough and important business decisions?
I often have a strong gut feeling about most tough decisions. While this may seem unconventional, it has proven to be a valuable asset in my decision-making process. One of my previous business partners and closest friends at CuneXus, co-founder Darin Chong, admired my ability to stay calm and decisive under pressure. We were a perfect match in the board room, as he could handle meticulous analytical decisions while I had no problem addressing an intimidating room of executives, using intuition, confidence, diplomacy, and attention to detail to make informed choices for the organization and stakeholders. However, I always remain open to being convinced otherwise if presented with compelling evidence or proven wrong.
What lesson did you learn early in your career that you now recognize as an important one?
I don’t have all the answers. The best thing you can do as a leader is recognize your weaknesses and seek out true experts in those fields to fill the knowledge gap. Grant them ownership of their area of the business, the resources they need to be successful, the incentive to keep them motivated, and then get out of their way.
How do you motivate people?
In a startup I believe some of the best motivation comes from incentivizing people with ownership of the vision and pride of authorship. Everyone working in a ground-level startup is an entrepreneur, and each person takes ownership of their area of work while trusting others to do the same. Failure is not a deterrent, but rather an opportunity to learn and try again. It is important to support and encourage people, making them feel part of something exciting and giving them the chance to share in the credit and success.
The journey should be every bit as gratifying as achieving the objective. So celebrating milestones and celebrating each other are important aspects of the culture at Union Credit. Our third co-founder, Darin Chong, passed away tragically last year. We dedicated our efforts in 2023 to his memory and have adopted a slogan for the year, Be Daring—adding a “g” to his name. As a team, we honor his memory and the spirit of startup culture by daring to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones, daring to take chances and make bold decisions, daring to trust in our shared vision, daring to do something novel and revolutionary for our industry. I find that incredibly motivating, and the team celebrates this theme each month as we take time during our monthly staff meetings to recognize individuals for embodying the Be Daring theme.
What concerns do you have for your business and industry looking out five years?
Looking ahead five years, I would say the main concerns I have for our business and the industry include the stability of the financial markets and banking system. Traditional middle-market banks and credit unions face increasing pressure from large incumbent banks and fintech companies, which can affect their ability to compete. It is crucial these community financial institutions find a way to offer easy access to information and opportunities, making important financial tools like financing more convenient.
From a consumer perspective, I worry about the irresponsible use of technology and data, potentially exposing consumers to predatory rates and fraud. We see this as an opportunity to ensure that our practices are responsible and in the best interest of the consumer. We want to protect both consumers and lenders by providing solutions based on responsible lending and borrowing rules.
What goals do you have for the next five years?
To establish true embedded lending capabilities. We aim to enable consumers to access the funds they need during the purchase process for various big-ticket items. This includes responsibly granting loans for vehicles, homes, home renovations, etc., within the transaction layer, similar to how PayPal is embedded in the checkout process for smaller purchases. We want to become the provider of this type of seamless lending experience that is surprisingly not yet prevalent today.
What was your first career job?
My first career job was at Redwood Credit Union, where I worked for about seven years before leaving to start CuneXus. As mentioned earlier, I was fortunate to be able to explore many areas of the business during my time there, from managing marketing, advertising and multimedia programs, to branch merchandising, community involvement and events coordination. I even came up with their mascot Reddy the Redwood. You know that big plush redwood tree mascot that you’d see smiling and dancing around at community events? For several years that was me in there!
How do you spend your time outside of work?
Outside of work, I prioritize spending time with my family as much as possible. My wife Lisa and I have three incredible kids that are growing up way too fast, so I cherish every moment I can spend with them at home. We enjoy vacations together and new adventures and I make a conscious effort to be fully present in those moments. I do however love to clear my mind by trail running, mountain biking, snow and water sports, and more. It allows me to connect with nature and feel free to think deeply and contemplate big decisions.
What advice would you give someone just starting out in your industry?
Again this may sound cliché, but my advice for someone starting their career in any industry is to always take the high road and do the right thing. Integrity is everything. It may be challenging at times, but avoid cutting corners and be mindful of how your decisions impact those around you, especially your colleagues and clientele. By choosing the high road and maintaining your integrity, even in failure, you’ll have a greater sense of satisfaction and pride. In the end, it’s not about how much money you’ve made or the accolades you’ve received, what matters is your ability to look in the mirror and feel good about the person looking back at you.
Kathryn Reed is a journalist who has spent most of her career covering issues in Northern California. She has published four books, with the most recent being Sleeping with Strangers: An Airbnb Host’s Life in Lake Tahoe and Mexico. She may be reached at kr@kathrynreed. com, or follower her at kathrynreed.com, Twitter @Kathryn0925, or Instagram @kathrynreed0925.