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M&T to designate 17 Baltimore-area branches as ‘multicultural banking centers’

A sign at an M&T Bank multicultural banking center in Buffalo, New York, reads “aquí hablamos español,” which translates to “we speak Spanish here.” Courtesy of M&T Bank.

An M&T Bank program that aims to make banking more accessible in communities with high nonwhite and non-English-speaking populations is expanding to 17 of the bank’s branches across the Greater Baltimore region. 

Called “multicultural banking centers,” these 17 locations are based in areas with high Hispanic or Black populations.  

The centers based in neighborhoods with a significant number of non-English-speaking residents focus on hiring multilingual bank tellers and providing written materials in those languages to accommodate their customers. Meanwhile, the centers based in predominantly non-white neighborhoods will employ local community members, in hopes of making the branch feel more welcoming to the area’s residents. The centers will also provide gathering spaces for local community organizations and nonprofits. 

“We work really hard to make sure our bankers reflect the personality and the backgrounds of the communities we serve,” said Augie Chiasera, M&T’s regional president for the Greater Baltimore area. 

The multicultural banking centers initiative first launched in 2020 with three locations in Baltimore city and nearby Howard County; two of those locations were targeted towards the Hispanic community and one was targeted towards the Korean community. Those centers proved successful, according to Chiasera, with many visitors taking advantage of the opportunity to conduct transactions in their native language, leading the Buffalo-based bank to expand the program to its other markets.

“We found that our customers valued being able to talk to somebody within M&T in their native language, and … they were able to read materials from the bank in their native language as well,” he said. “They felt more welcomed and included within our organization.” 

Sara de Leon, the branch manager of M&T’s Riviera Beach branch in Anne Arundel County, said her branch’s new multicultural designation has been a major draw for some customers. One man, who spoke primarily Spanish, drove 30 minutes to de Leon’s branch to open accounts for himself and his son, and to get advice on building his credit. De Leon, who is originally from Guatemala and has been the Riviera Beach branch manager for a year and a half, helped the customer personally.

“He passed many different banks … because he wanted to speak to someone he understood fully,” she recalled.

Even details as subtle as the branches’ name tags aim to contribute to that feeling of inclusion; multilingual tellers have name tags that list both their name and the language they speak. 

Scott Graham, a Baltimore-area spokesperson for M&T Bank, said he witnessed one interaction at the bank’s Fells Point location — one of the three original multicultural banking centers — in which two women entering the branch were immediately able to start a conversation with one of the tellers in Spanish, after seeing that his name tag was emblazoned with a Spanish flag and the message: “Yo hablo español.” 

Currently, the bank operates 118 multicultural banking centers, serving communities with significant Russian, Polish, Asian, Hispanic or Black populations across the bank’s mid-Atlantic and Northeast footprint. Twenty of those centers are in the Greater Baltimore region, which includes the city, as well as Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties; several others are located in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.  

To celebrate recently surpassing 100 multicultural banking centers, the bank will ring the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday. 

In addition to expanding this program, M&T is also working to make banking services more accessible to Baltimoreans by offering its services outside of traditional bank branches. Most recently, the bank contributed $50,000 towards the renovation of the Bethel Empowerment and Wellness Center, a 20,400-square-foot facility in Baltimore’s Upton neighborhood. There, M&T will offer many of its regular services, such as opening accounts, taking out small business loans and taking financial literacy courses, to the neighborhood’s residents. A full-service ATM will also be available. 

“The Board of Directors of the BEWC are thrilled to partner with M&T Bank to bring financial literacy and banking services to the residents of Upton,” said Elizabeth Glenn, BEWC’s board chair. “The partnership reflects an exciting opportunity to demonstrate the impact financial institutions can have on undeserved and underbanked communities. We are proud to be a part of the bank’s efforts to establish multicultural banking centers as a way to build economic empowerment in Baltimore’s diverse communities.” 

Both this initiative and the multicultural centers developed out of M&T’s desire to be a bank “for communities,” rather than just a community bank, Chiasera said. That meant looking closely at who is part of the communities M&T serves — Baltimore, for example, is a majority-minority city with a Hispanic population that has nearly doubled in size over the past decade — and making decisions about how to best serve those populations. 

“This strategy is so consistent with the ethic, if you will, of M&T Bank and what it means to be a bank for communities. It isn’t some big splash, some big announcement,” he said. “It’s the sum total of how we approach the market in Baltimore.”