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Friday, Jun 2, 2023

Banking On It

Been inside your neighborhood bank branch lately? If you’re like many people, probably not. But if you were to venture in, you would probably be surprised. Take for instance what Wells Fargo & Co. is doing with its neighborhood banks. They are small at just 1,000 square feet – and friendly. Staff roam around carrying Wi-Fi connected tablet computers to assist customers, large screen ATMs abound and there are private areas for handling personal transactions. After closing, the store remains accessible for automated transactions. The San Francisco bank opened the first of these formats in April in Washington, D.C. and is in discussions to open a couple in the San Fernando Valley. In an era when fewer customers are going to branches and instead are using ATMs, going online and, now, accessing their accounts via mobile phones, banks and credit unions are experimenting with their brick-and-mortar branches. Not only are they downsizing to serve fewer customers, but they also are going high-tech and trying to meet the higher customer service expectations generated by Apple and Nordstrom stores of the world. “We are constantly looking for the most modern appeal and upscale appearance,” said Evelin Martinez, a district manager with Wells Fargo whose region includes the San Fernando Valley. The upgrades have started with Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase & Co. and other large banks, which following the financial crisis in 2008 took it on the chin in terms of public perception. They are doing more to be customer-centric and make services available when and where customers want them. But the changes are now trickling down to the regional and community bank level. Even credit unions have gotten in on the trend, and with good reason. Fewer customers may be coming in, but financial institutions can’t afford to abandon branches, where high-profit products such as home mortgages and retirement plans are sold. “There are incentives to create an environment where they sell rather than do transactions,” said Mark Maness, executive vice president with Consultants and Builders Inc., a Duluth, Ga. architectural firm that designs bank and credit union branches in the southeast part of the country. This strategy is reflected in branch design. Waiting areas take cues from hotel lobbies with large comfortable chairs, open floor plans, natural light coming through floor-to-ceiling windows and complimentary drinks and snacks. Banks and credit unions alike will have staff members roaming to greet customers. “We have a concierge desk always staffed and offering water and gourmet coffee when (customers) come in,” said Dave Styler, chief executive at Logix Federal Credit Union, based in Burbank and with branches throughout the greater Valley region. UMe Federal Credit Union in Burbank did an extensive remodel in 2010 of its main building. Working with an area architectural firm, windows replaced a solid wall and offices were built to look onto the main lobby area so that people were not locked away in a closed environment, said President and Chief Executive Robert Einstein. Comments about the building have been overwhelmingly positive. Einstein recounted meeting a Burbank resident who opened at an account with UMe because he liked the building so much. “We speak in a manner that connects with people,” Einstein added. Getting a plan For decades, the traditional bank and its branches were designed and built from a conservative approach that exuded strength and security – solid buildings with simple interiors that said, “Your money is safe with us.” The transactions done in these branches were simple as well – such as opening a checking account or cashing a paycheck. When Chuck Rosen, chief operating officer at Community Bank, started his banking career as a teller in 1969, a line of 50 to 100 people waiting for a teller was not uncommon. “These were old-fashioned banks with individual teller windows with their own single line,” Rosen said. “One side (of the branch) was teller operations; the other was the branch manager and the loan officers.” Those everyday transactions are now handled through direct deposit and online access, causing banks and credit unions to rethink how they use their space. Customers need to be reminded of the services available at branches. Maness said good branch design starts with the floor plan. Walk into a McDonald’s and you will see all their products up on the menu board. That is not always the case with banks, so the design should provide information on what else is available to customers, he said. “There needs to be a well-thought-out customer trail so they know what they are looking at,” Maness added. A consistent layout contributes to that trail – placing loan officers, say, or the tellers, in the same section of a branch so that customers can know just where to find them. Wells Fargo uses this strategy, as does Logix credit union which makes for a cost-effective design. “No matter which branch (customers) will recognize it as a Logix branch,” said Styler, the chief executive. Consistency, however, does not mean cookie-cutter. Fitting into the neighborhood and reflecting the population and its banking needs is another core principle in branch design. Wells Fargo makes a point of putting up murals and artwork showing historical images taken from where the branch is located. In Studio City, for example, the mural shows a film crew from the 1920s, the old Republic Pictures lot and Los Angeles firemen circa 1947. In a less affluent community in the Valley, say Pacoima or Panorama City, Wells Fargo serves an immigrant population that is learning about banking for the first time. So the bank provides financial literacy classes, said Marla Clemow, a senior vice president and regional representative. “Our classes on educating the consumer is something we do more of in those particular markets,” she added. Chase, too, has made strides in reflecting the neighborhood with its new bank branch format unveiled this year in the Union Square section of San Francisco. With its hotel lobby feel and a 7-foot high curving video wall, the branch fits in with the surrounding upscale retail shops. “Banks have drawn inspiration from retail stores and others outside the industry to create welcoming spaces that often combine an open-concept layout with interactive technology,” said Mike Townsend, a spokesman with the American Bankers Association, the industry trade group based in Washington, D.C. Human touch Bank design now features space for new technology as well as human staffers. Chase and Wells Fargo have rolled out large-screen ATMs that dispense money in denominations other than $20 bills. The Wells Fargo branch in Studio City provides two computer terminals available for people to check their accounts. Brett Conway, a principal with Craft Architects in Seattle, which has financial institution clients, worked with a credit union in British Columbia that uses a facial recognition program to match members with their photos so they are no longer asked for an ID when doing a transaction. “That can improve the experience of meeting with a banker,” he said. The technology revolution, however, isn’t for every financial institution. While conceding that there is a drop in customers coming to Logix credit union branches, Styler said that his institution is not heavily investing in technology. “We are still focused primarily on the face-to-face experience,” he added. “We will always have tellers.” When California United Bank opened a new branch and loan production office in Orange County in August, great care was taken with the look and design in order to create an atmosphere that businesspeople appreciate. By using chrome, dark walnut wood green accents, and historical photos on the walls, the Encino financial institution conveys a modern but conservative look and feel consistent at all eight of its branches. While there is a big-screen television in the waiting area, California United shuns the high-tech banking approach favored by the larger, national chains for one emphasizing a personal touch, said Chief Operating Officer Anne Williams. Smaller banks such as California United are more apt to go that route because they serve a business clientele with transactions requiring human assistance, she said. “They (the large banks) are building all over the place and get more value with the technology rather than have people at a teller line,” Williams added. “But it is more impersonal.”

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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