First Citizens’ Federal Credit Union Improves Efficiency and Supports Expansion With Ascend’s AP Automation

AvidXchange’s Ascend helped the growing $1B credit union streamline approvals and vendor management, mitigate the risk of fraud, and free up the AP team’s time for critical areas of focus.

With: Terri Vroom, Controller

Based in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, First Citizens’ Federal Credit Union provides premier personalized service and innovative products and services to members spanning 12 branches and one mortgage center, from the South Coast to Orleans on the Cape. 

FCFCU’s mission is “to positively and meaningfully impact our customers by providing financial products and services that are easy to obtain and convenient to use, while at the same time creating and maintaining a positive presence in communities that we serve.”

To keep up with continued expansion, this growing credit union with an 80-year history and an asset size approaching $1 billion, continues to look to the future to ensure it provides the highest level of service to its members throughout the region.

The Challenge

First Citizens’ Federal Credit Union employs over 200 part- and full-time employees who believe in building strong, long-term relationships to help members achieve their financial goals. As their base of members and number of branches expanded, FCFCU recognized a need to improve back-office AP efficiencies and take greater control of their GL.

Terri Vroom, Controller, has been with First Citizens’ for eight years. Vroom describes how FCFCU was bogged down by cumbersome, paper-heavy AP processes and how an outdated system of managing vendors and invoices was costing her financial institution too much time and money.

Manual processes made it especially difficult to onboard and train new employees, and provided a continual source of anxiety regarding the risk of AP fraud.

First Citizens’ objectives were to automate accounts payable and streamline operations:

  • To save time and maximize departmental efficiencies
  • To mitigate the risk of AP fraud
  • To streamline invoice management, approval workflow and payments processes
  • To leverage AP professionals’ experience in other strategic areas of the department

The Solution

First Citizens’ made the core conversion to Ascend in 2017. They utilize a range of products including Accounts Payable, Invoice Approval, Expense Reports, Fixed Assets, Prepaids and Accruals, and Vendor Management. Their most recent addition was Invoice Inbox.

With a range of AP workflow automation tools at their disposal, FCFCU is able to track and manage invoices and vendors, reduce errors and inefficiencies, and eliminate redundant AP tasks that cost valuable time and resources. 

With Ascend Approval Workflow, FCFCU maintains a fully customizable, secure and automated approvals system, with 24/7 visibility into payment status, approvals and vendor information.

Automating accounts payable and the invoice approvals workflow has allowed FCFCU to keep the pace with their expansion and leverage AP professionals in other strategic areas of the department, all while reducing the risk of AP fraud and compliance issues.

A More Efficient Back Office

Before the transition to automated accounts payable solutions with Ascend, First Citizens’ relied on paper-heavy, manual workflow that put tremendous stress on a relatively small AP department tasked with managing hundreds of accounts.

Terri Vroom recounts how these processes made it difficult for employees to track and manage invoices, vendors and approvals, and how the same processes made it nearly impossible when continued expansion required the onboarding and training of new employees.

“Everything was manual,” Vroom explains. “We would receive invoices and have to code and get wet signatures on them, track them down when we didn’t receive them, then put them in the system, which was our huge, bulky filing cabinet. And file them all alphabetically by vendor, staple on a check receipt. It was one step up from etching it into stone.” 

Relying upon AP automation has contributed to a more streamlined workflow and largely eliminated the risk of costly mistakes. “When you’re expanding and bringing in new people, you have improper filing or it can get neglected altogether. Chasing down paperwork, trying to find a bill you paid two months earlier, and you can’t find it because it’s filed improperly … it opens us up to risk and slows everything down,” Vroom says.

“We looked at Ascend’s AP solutions and thought, we can use this as a repository for all of our invoices, and we don’t have to manually file them. That’s a big time saver in and of itself, and you have invoice tracking built-in. We were very limited with our old system in terms of our ability to gather all of that information and manage all of our invoices and vendors in an efficient way.”

Mitigating the Risk of AP Fraud

First Citizens’ growth and expansion compelled the credit union to turn to automated AP, not only to streamline their workflow and increase productivity, but also to mitigate the ever-present risk of AP fraud. Terri Vroom names fraud as the most pressing threat for AP departments and points to an automated approvals process as the key tool that FCFCU uses to prevent it. 

“Ascend absolutely helps us reduce the risk of fraud,” Vroom says. “It’s easy to track who has submitted, viewed or altered invoices, because all of that is tracked within the system. We’re able to automate the approval process and segregate duties based on our own custom preferences within the Ascend software.”

Fewer hands on the approvals process equals a more predictable and controlled workflow that virtually eliminates manual fraud. “Whereas we once had to have wet signatures on every invoice, now that’s all within the system, so that the proper people are the only ones seeing the invoices, and approving them based on customized limits we have built in. One employee enters new vendor information and then another employee reviews it. Before that first payment ever goes out, the invoice will have been seen by multiple sets of authorized eyes to make sure everything is in order,” Vroom explains. 

Streamlined Approvals & Vendor Management

Automating accounts payable has enabled a streamlined period of expansion for First Citizens’ Federal Credit Union. Managing invoices and vendor information within a fully customizable, user-defined interface has brought a systematic approach that can be applied uniformly to new branches. As the Controller in charge of a three-person AP department, Terri Vroom emphasizes the time savings and efficiencies inherent in the automated approvals workflow.

“By far the best thing — the most time savings, the most bang for its buck — is the approval system,” Vroom says. “It’s a relief to be able to build in an approvals workflow based on our policy, and to know that you’re following protocol automatically, because it’s built into the system. We only have to make a change when an internal policy changes. Whereas before, we were relying on people to pay attention to who is signing this invoice, do they have the authority to sign this invoice, do I recognize those initials? So, by far the automation of invoice approvals has saved us the most time.”

Freeing Up Time for Critical Areas of Focus

First Citizens’ Federal Credit Union made the transition to automated AP to shore up back-office efficiencies and to hedge against the risk of fraud. In doing so, the credit union discovered that automation frees up time and resources that employees can leverage in other strategic areas of the department, and critically, how it allows them to remain focused on customer service, rather than mundane, redundant tasks that simply require too much time and energy.

Terri Vroom describes the new normal at FCFCU in terms of the ease with which her team is able to keep up with the demands of a future-forward credit union committed to providing their member base with the latest and best in service and support.

“We definitely save time and money and have totally streamlined compliance with Ascend,” Vroom explains. “We’re constantly finding new ways to use the system and improve our processes. We no longer have to use excel expense reimbursement forms and worry about multiple copies of the same form out there in the network.” 

“As we continue to grow,” she continues, “we have not had to add staff to our department, based on the workflow improvements. Our AP people are able to assist other areas of the department because they’re not bogged down with manual processes, so they have the opportunity to grow and learn and do new things.”

Ready to see how automating AP can help your FI streamline workflow, save time and eliminate inefficiency? Request a demo to find out how AvidXchange can help.

What Our Clients Are Saying

We just had our first external audit with ASCEND. I scheduled a 30-minute sit-down with the auditor to look at specific items. This process would have taken about six hours before ASCEND. The auditor couldn’t get over how easy and accurate it was. She said at least 10 of her bank clients immediately came to mind, that should start using BankTEL. She took a stack of my cards, to give to the accountants at these banks, in case they wanted to call with questions.

Nicole HulbertSeaside National Bank & Trust

I’ve been through the conversion process to new software before, and it’s usually a nightmare. Nothing balances and nothing works. But with ASCEND, things balanced and things worked. It was a very easy move.

Mendy CollierRegent Bank

With BankTEL, everything was more streamlined, there was better reconcilement, better functionality and better security on the user-side of things. It was a major step up for us.

Heath PrescottFarmers & Merchants Bank of South Carolina

Banks deal with accounting every part of every day. It’s a core part of the business. To be able to maneuver through the system and have the detail of records, the tracking and reporting that are available at BankTEL, was long overdue. Ascend is leagues ahead of where we were previously.

Tony AtecaSecurity Federal Bank

One thing I like about BankTEL is that they always want to know what you want and how they can make their product better. They like to listen to customers.

Lynn McKeeBankWest