World banking on Fourth Plain

First Independent designs branch to appeal to four cultures at once

Banks are addressing the multi-cultural nature of their client base. Some, like Bank of America, now offer a line of credit to un-documented workers, and West Coast Bank has rolled out a direct deposit program that allows agricultural employers to pay migrant workers by filling up an employee-held debit card.

"(Migrant workers are) a very targeted audience," said West Coast Bank President and Chief Executive Officer Bob Sznewajs of the six-month-old program. "It requires employers to change the way they do things just a bit."

Sznewajs said the bank also offers limited bilingual tellers and conducts some electronic money transfer to Latin American countries.

First Independent is redesigning its branch at 3301 Fourth Plain Blvd. to offer a facility designed to accommodate the needs, beliefs, social practices and customs of four nationalities at once.

The planned First Independent International Branch is part of a multi-year general overhaul of the bank’s 22 branches, according to First Independent Senior Vice President and Director of Retail Banking Ron Bertolucci. While Bertolucci would not reveal the price tag of the new project, he said a typical branch remodel costs between $350,000 and $800,000, and that a new bank branch runs between $1.5 million and $2 million. With the international branch, planners hope to capture revenue through home loans and new accounts.

Bertolucci hopes the redesigned branch will better serve the four identified cultural groups along the Fourth Plain Corridor, a stretch of road city leaders have dubbed "The International District." The district is home to substantial Chinese, Vietnamese, Latin American and Ukrainian populations. He said the idea came in part from his childhood; his father was a grocer in California, and became adept at catering to shoppers of many nationalities.

"We always take what we learn in our life and apply it to our work," he said. "When I came to the bank (two years ago) I saw an opportunity at the Fourth Plain branch to build something that over time would establish better trust with the diverse client base."

The team has been at it for six months, consulting with cultural experts and hiring staff to act as interpreters of both language and culture, as well as remodeling the branch.

A cultural soup

Creating the culture is a curious thing, as each group Bertolucci hopes to fit into the new branch brings their own challenges. Latin Americans, for example, have a general fear of banks, said Bertolucci, because in most nations south of the Arizona border, only the extremely wealthy use banks. Regular folks are likely to keep cash on hand, rather than opening an account.

"I remember one customer who told one of our bankers that he wanted to buy his home, and that he had $100,000 in cash," said Bertolucci. "My first response was, ‘why don’t you open an account?’ There’s just that fear that ‘if I put my money in your bank, how can I trust you to give it back to me?’"

Bertolucci said the bank now offers classes to train bank employees to communicate better with each nationality, emphasizing sensitivity to their fears and customs. In one of these classes, Assistant Vice President and Regional Team Leader Matt Ableidinger said he had his eyes opened to the Chinese way of doing business.

"The Chinese are all about the guanxi, or the relationship," he said. "They will only do business once a network of trust has been established through mutual friends or relatives. Also, in Chinese culture, your business card is you. So, if I give you a wrinkled, scuffed business card, I am giving you a wrinkled, scuffed me."

Lillian Tsai is president of Portland-based Asian culture consulting firm, Tsai Comms. She instructed First Independent employees on the nature of Chinese culture. Tsai said to understand Chinese business is to understand the Chinese way of life.

"We must understand that there is no delineation between business and personal worlds. So when you ask the importance of guanxi in Chinese business culture, it is just as important in personal relationships since relationships are an integral part of Chinese business culture," she said.

Tsai said that Ableidinger is correct in considering the card as himself.

"I call it respect for the card," said Tsai. "No cards should be exchanged if they are dirty or folded since it means you don’t respect the person you’re giving it to enough to give them a clean card. You present it with the words facing your guest, thumb and forefinger of both hands holding onto the top corners of the card so you’re not covering the words, then ending with a quick bow from the waist…. You should also receive (the card) with both hands with a slight bow, and it should be placed it in front of you if you’re sitting down at a meeting in the order of the seating arrangements of your Chinese guests.

The bank’s Ukrainian customers prefer not to deal with anyone but Kazakhstan-born Personal Banker Svetlana Moskalenko, the cultural ambassador to the Ukrainian and Russian client base at the branch.

"Our Ukrainian customers will walk in and literally shout, Svetlana!" said Ableidinger, "and if she’s not there, all the other employees will shout back ‘Svetlana will not be back until 2:30,’ and they will turn on their heels and walk out."

Modestly, Moskalenko allowed that her job as personal banker and Russian interpreter gives the Russian-speaking clients confidence in banking there.

"Of course, any one would like to do business with a person who speaks your language and understands your culture," she said.

Cultural ambassadors – each of which are already working at the bank prior to the remodel, scheduled for completion in the next three months – are working to educate the rest of the staff on the cultural sensitivities of their clients.

The language barrier

In their research, bank leaders discovered that many international clients employ their young children – usually the best English speakers – as interpreters. This is something they would like to change, for obvious reasons.

"It’s probably not the best idea to have a nine-year-old translating the intricacies of your home equity loan," said Ableidinger.

To remedy this situation, the new branch will have interpreters on staff, as well as a telephone-based interpretation service, just in case the interpreter is out sick or at lunch. Further, throughout the bank, customers will find "point-to signs," allowing them to simply point out the language they speak in order to help speed them to the proper helper or help facility.

Tsai said with the Chinese, the language will likely be the ice breaker.

"Language could be the first barrier," she said. "Mostly with the older generation. The second would be trust and respect. Trust with our culture happens over long periods of time, not months, but years. This then relates to guanxi, which is one of the first things I advised First Independent in working with Chinese. Think long term, don’t be superficial, be genuine, and keep showing up in their community."

Remodeling for four cultures

The newly designed branch will include a more inviting layout for customers, offering an open floor plan with tellers facing the large front door. There will also be a community lounge, which will not only have elements from each culture – such as publications and television programming – but an Internet kiosk meant to help clients retrieve important information they sometimes find themselves without once they make it to the bank.

"We’re finding (gathering at the bank) is very much a cultural attribute that we can be a part of," said Ableidinger. "We’re a community bank, and we want to address all communities. We’re not looking to have cookie-cutter branches, and the trust factor really is the common denominator."