BANANACOAST Community Credit Union (BCU) plans to expand its reach on the North Coast by merging with the Big River Credit Union.

The boards of both institutions are backing the merger, which is likely to happen before the end of the 2004-2005 financial year.

If the move receives the approval of Big River members, the credit unions will become a single merged entity under the BCU brand, which will then boast more than 60,000 members, $700 million in total assets and more than 200 staff.

BCU chairman Bill Singleton said there would be no forced redundancies as a result of the merger.

"It is a positive arrangement for both credit unions," he said.

"It is getting difficult for small credit unions to offer a full range of services.

"If BCU gets bigger, we get the advantages of economies of scale and it seems like a natural addition. Big River gets benefits as well."

Big River has branches in Coffs Harbour, Grafton, Maclean, Yamba and Iluka.

Mr Singleton said he thought it was unlikely Big River's Coffs Harbour branch, just along Park Avenue from the BCU, would remain open after the merger.

He was unsure what would happen in Grafton, where both credit unions also have branches.

In a joint press release issued yesterday, Big River said it wanted to ensure its members continued to have access to a credit union that met their ongoing sustainable needs.

The members will have significantly increased face-to-face options as BCU has 15 branches between Port Macquarie and Tweed Heads.

A new BCU branch is due to open in Lismore this month.

Investigation of the merger plan will continue for the next few months.

A memorandum of understanding requires the credit unions to complete a rigorous due diligence process to ensure that the needs of members and all regulatory requirements can be fully met.

Detailed information will be provided to members as soon as these processes are completed.

"Subject to the investigation process, which we believe will be very positive, both credit unions are looking forward to offering all members the benefits of a much stronger organisation with a more comprehensive and competitive range of products and services," yesterday's press release said.

Mr Singleton denied that BCU, by continuing to expand, was in danger of becoming more like a bank than a credit union.

"We're miles away from becoming like a bank and while our philosophies are right, we never will," he said.

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