Banks add branches to build roots in communities

Feb 9 2011 - 11:07am

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- With a surge in Internet banking, growth in automatic teller machines and a tight economy, you might think that new branches would be far from the focus of banks today.

But many of the country's big banks are opening more offices to try to sell existing customers more services beyond checking or savings accounts. They're now peddling the gamut from loans to investment funds, stock brokerage to insurance -- activities once off-limits to banking companies.

They're becoming aggressive partly to recoup some of the money that banks are losing from tighter government rules on overdraft fees and debit-cards.

Bankers say their expanded offerings help customers with one convenient location for multiple needs, but some consumers are wary. They fear that fees for simple banking will rise -- or at least, not be waived -- if they don't tap into the new investment-related offerings.

"The banks are being greedy. They are trying to get all the money," said Whitney Land, 48 of Margate, Fla., who is studying health information management to start a new career. Even so, she'd consider using new investment services if they help reduce the fees she pays on her banking accounts.

The new branches are coming mainly from the country's biggest banks, such as Bank of America Corp., which now offers investment services through the Merrill Lynch unit it bought in 2008.

Nationwide, the country's 69 largest banks added 1,107 offices in the year ended June 30 to reach 45,890 branches, according to the latest data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. That comes despite a drop in the total number of branches from all banks, FDIC reports show.

TD Bank, part of Canada's Toronto Dominion banking group, illustrates the growth trend. It has 170 branches in Florida, up from three dozen early April last year, mainly due to acquisitions. And it aims to add another six to nine more branches in the state yearly, said Kevin Gillen, regional president for Florida.

TD hopes extra branches can draw customers for a range of services from its Penny Arcade, with free coin counting, to its TD Ameritrade stock brokerage and TD Insurance products. For the wealthy, it also offers private banking through TD Wealth.

"Cross-selling is extremely important," said Gillen. Companies often find it easier to sell to an existing customer from across its business units than to try to win over a completely new client, he said.

TD also strives to forge a long-term relationship with customers through personal service. It keeps branches open 361 days a year, clearing deposits faster than many other banks and staffing its call center open 24-7, so "it's nearly impossible to get a voice mail," said Gillen.

BankUnited, based in Miami Lakes, Fla., is adding branches in Florida too, as new owners expand their focus beyond mortgages to small business. When entrepreneurs and their employees visit, the bank hopes they'll buy a range of investment services from pension plans to college funds, said Harlan Parrish, senior executive vice president for neighborhood banking.

BankUnited opened nine branches last year to reach 81 offices in Florida as of early January. It plans to add 15 more this year and 20 more in 2012. Some will open in former fast-food restaurant sites that offer good locations, drive-through windows and ample parking. One branch slated for the Miami area this year will open in a spot that last housed a Burger King, Parrish said.

"Customers say we want to access you remotely, but we don't want you to treat us remotely." Parrish said. "There are times that customers want to come into a branch, and it's important to be in that convenient location."

As banks seek to cross-sell more, they're also changing the way branches look, making them more warm and colorful, more open, less conservative and in some ways, more like hotel lobbies or boutiques.

BankUnited's new offices, for example, feature local art. In Miami Lakes, decorations include pictures of cows harkening to the days that dairy farms were located there, Parrish said.

Some banks are even rethinking branches more as community centers, opening their conference rooms to neighborhood groups or hosting community events in the evenings.

Umpqua Bank, based in Portland, Ore., for example, offers movie nights with popcorn and even sells CDs of local bands at its branches. Some branches feature a "Discover Wall" that showcases neighborhood events and opportunities for volunteering. The bank rejects the idea that branches are staid and acts more like a coffee house or retailer, said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at financial website Bankrate.com.

But extra offerings, even in a convenient, attractive office, won't necessarily draw in more cash from all customers -- at least not for insurance adjuster Ron Brook, 52, of Fort Lauderdale. He prefers to keep his banking and financial investments separate. "I'd rather go to somebody dedicated to servicing my investments," said Brook.

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