August 6, 2018
Banking & FINANCE

Amid shakeup, rebranding, Wellness FCU debuts new Hartford home

HBJ Photo | Gregory Seay
HBJ Photo | Gregory Seay
Raymond Kowalski, acting CEO of Hartford's Wellness Federal Credit Union.
Gregory Seay

Sixty-three years after opening its doors, serving the savings and borrowing needs of Hartford Hospital employees, Wellness Federal Credit Union, formerly Hartford HealthCare Federal Credit Union, is moving now to become a lender to all members of Connecticut's healthcare community.

The $35 million-asset credit cooperative recently relocated from smaller space in Hartford Hospital's shadow in the South End, to bigger quarters in Colt Gateway's office-residential neighborhood, on downtown's southern edge.

The move, in conjunction with its recent name-change and rebranding, is part of an upgrade of its headquarters and back-office IT systems, with an eye toward increasing its membership by 50 percent within 18 months, says acting CEO Raymond Kowalski.

Federal credit-union regulators last year approved Wellness' application to expand its member field to include all healthcare workers in Connecticut. According to Kowalski, state labor data counts some 275,000 people directly engaged in providing in- and out-patient health services at hospitals, nursing homes and other locations — all potential Wellness members, he said.

"It's where our members come from,'' Kowalski said. The goal, he added, is for Wellness to become the leading, member-owned credit cooperative serving the state's healthcare-working community. That would put it in the crosshairs of its main New Haven rival, $59 million-asset Healthcare Financial Federal Credit Union, which serves about 8,700 employees and their families of the Yale New Haven Hospital and its affiliates.

Disruption amid changes

Kowalski served three decades as a Wellness director before a board-led management shakeup last fall elevated him to his CEO post. Amid fallout from the shakeup, Wellness' former CEO, Carol Bayreuther, is suing Kowalski and her former employer for allegedly defaming her character.

Bayreuther, who was ousted from the credit union after a more than three-decade run as its CEO, claims in court papers she was fired in Sept. 2017 without cause and that Kowalski spread false rumors about her. Wellness is also suing Bayreuther for unpaid debts.

Kowalski, through Wellness' attorney, denied Bayreuther's defamation allegations, but declined further comment. Attempts to contact Bayreuther through her lawyer were unsuccessful.

In late July, Kowalski and his 20-person team relocated Wellness' offices from a cramped, converted house at 4 Wethersfield Ave., to 10,000 square feet of office space on the ground floor of 15 Van Dyke Ave., in Colt Gateway.

A grand opening is set for Aug. 15.

The old building lacked adequate parking, had limited wheelchair accessibility and other drawbacks that put it out of compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act rules, Kowalski said. Wellness has a branch inside Hartford Hospital and a Newington branch, at 181 Patricia M. Genoa. It also has 11 ATMs stationed at various locations in Greater Hartford.

"We did not want to leave the city of Hartford,'' said Kowalski, a Bristol resident, for the convenience of members, many of whom live and/or work in the city.

Meantime, Wellness is in talks with landlords about space for two more in-state branches — one in Hartford County and one outside, Kowalski said, declining to elaborate until the leases are set.

Its new Hartford headquarters has enough space for borrower conferences, plus room for a larger teller counter and more office space for staff, Kowalski said.

Also, fiber-optic cabling was installed to link Wellness' technology systems. Costs tied to the relocation are around $200,000.

In addition to upgrading its quarters, Wellness has invested some $350,000 in new data-processing and information-technology hardware and software in a bid to expand its cloud-based offerings of savings, credit and other financial products.

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