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PNC's revamped North Charles Street branch, which opened in March of last year, has been dubbed by the company as the "branch of the future." (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Md. banks rush to transform branches

From the outside, the free-standing building on North Charles Street looks like any other bank: one-story and boxy, plenty of windows, fairly small.

But step inside and you know immediately that this is not your typical bank.

The lobby is open and spacious, with a smattering of desks and workstations in the middle. There are no tellers lined up in a row behind glass or bars. Instead, iPad-toting employees roam the lobby, greeting customers at the door and offering the latest in both self-serve banking technology and personal service.

You might think you wandered into an Apple store by mistake, but you better get used to it. More and more banks are transforming their branches in a similar way, part of an effort to make them more customer-friendly, reduce wait times and take advantage of the latest technology.

Maryland’s bank branches have joined the trend. PNC’s revamped North Charles Street branch, opened in March of last year and dubbed by the company as the “branch of the future,” is only one of a string of these modernized models to open in the state.

Others include:

  • New Jersey-based TD Bank opened its first branch in Baltimore City last year and, like PNC’s Woodbrook branch, TD Bank replaced tellers with roving employees and offered the latest in self-serve technology, including high-tech ATM machines that dispense bills in a wide variety of denominations.
  • Montgomery County-based Sandy Spring Bank opened a new branch in Bethesda in December of last year and, once again, the new branch had an open layout, highly trained roving employees instead of tellers, the latest in self-service technology and a “full-service financial center.”
  • Hunt Valley-based Point Breeze Credit Union plans to open a new branch in Westminster in July 2016 that will be its first to include virtually all of the features of the above-mentioned branches. This will include the ubiquitous “universal agents” who replace the tellers and are trained to provide the range of banking services from cashing checks to making loans.
rom Left, Karen J. Shea, AVP Branch Manager, looking at PNC's Virtual Wallet program on a tablet computer with Universal Banker Kathleen Hwang at the PNC on North Charles Street in Baltimore.(The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

rom Left, Karen J. Shea, AVP Branch Manager, looking at PNC’s Virtual Wallet program on a tablet computer with Universal Banker Kathleen Hwang at the PNC on North Charles Street in Baltimore.(The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

These are not one-shot deals or experiments. Bank executives say more such models are on the way. Six of PNC’s 134 area branches, for example, now follow the new, high-tech model, according to spokeswoman Nicole Berger, and within five years, that number will soar to 60 percent of all the bank’s branches.

“This is where the future of banking, in terms of branches, is going to go,” said Point Breeze Credit Union President Bernard McLaughlin, noting that banks in New England, where he used to work, began shifting to the new model about a decade ago. “This is the way everything will be over time.”

Kathleen Murphy, president and CEO of the Maryland Bankers Association, said customer preferences are driving the changes.

National surveys show that online banking is the most popular way to bank among customers, she noted, but branches are the second most popular, so banks are vying to make the branch experience quicker and more convenient.

“There is still a need for human interaction for the more complex products, or to determine their options for financial planning,” Murphy said. “People want to sit down and talk to someone.”

Besides eliminating tellers and providing the latest technology and employees trained in all financial transactions, she said many bank branches now double as financial education centers, offering seminars in such topics as financial literacy and wealth management.

“Every bank is looking at how the branch is changing and trying to determine what is the best way for their branch network to evolve,” Murphy said.

In the past few years, she said, her association has hosted several speakers on the subject of bank transformations.

“Some [banks] have been more active than others,” she added. “But this is a conversation at every bank.”

At Sandy Spring Bank, the conversation is about making the banking experience more pleasant and efficient, President and CEO Daniel Schrider said.

“This is not an efficiency play,” he said. “It’s more about creating an experience that’s more intimate, more focused on problem-solving and engagement, and about reaching out to the community and providing some space for them to gather if needed. That’s what’s behind it.”

At PNC’s Woodbrook branch on a recent weekday morning, an employee was standing at the open lobby’s “discovery table” showing an older customer the bank’s high-tech “virtual wallet,” an electronic money-management tool, as Matt Martin, PNC retail market manager for Greater Maryland, looked on.

“Some people are apprehensive about these changes,” Martin allowed “But once they’ve done it, most say, ‘Well that was easy.’”

“The needs of the customer are changing, technology is absolutely increasing, and customers’ behavior patterns are changing,” Martin added. “But our goal is to be able to serve every type of customer. So, if they want to do a teller transaction with a real person, they can do that here.”