Big Blue to the rescue

November 20, 2017 | GET MORE : Life

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Washington bankers took mobile banking to the next level after a customer service emergency.

Sometimes, putting the customer first involves driving a bus slowly across the country to set it up in a grocery store parking lot.

U.S. Bank's mobile disaster unit – a big, blue branch converted from an old bus – is normally brought out when a branch is damaged in a natural disaster, like when it traveled to Joplin, Missouri, after the catastrophic tornado there in 2011.

This time, it left Minneapolis in early November to make the nearly 1,700-mile trek to Milton, Washington, a former lumber milling community nestled between Seattle and Tacoma. Milton hadn't suffered a natural disaster, but its residents had gone on a roller coaster ride with U.S. Bank branches in the last two years.

The Milton branch had been located inside a grocery store that changed hands a couple of times, closed and reopened, and then ultimately closed again. When the final closure happened, Milton was left without a U.S. Bank nearby. Customers missed not only the convenience, but also their warm relationships with the branch staff.

Kimberly Yee, a local chiropractor and 20-year business customer of U.S. Bank, said she was "devastated" to hear the branch was closing. 

"I don't do mobile deposits … so three to four times a week is how often I come into the branch," Yee said. "So, it sounds crazy, but (the closure was) life-changing. Then when I heard you guys were coming back, I was ecstatic. It's like family. They're not just my bankers, they're my friends."

The store closure news in late August had created a bit of panic for Milton Branch Manager Eric Felt (pictured above) and his team, who had already been through a lot with previous closings.

"We are invested in our customers and the community," Felt said. "Because there is that personal connection, our first concern was, what are our friends going to do for their banking?"

So Felt, his team, his District Manager Adi Smajlovic, and a large cast of others kicked into high gear to figure out what they could do to help the community.

Regional Operations Manager Nancy Marko started the conversation about bringing the mobile unit to Milton. 

"When the grocery store said they were closing again, I was dumbfounded," Marko said. "Then I thought, 'Don't we have a bus? This is an emergency – customers need us.'"

Paul Lafrange, vice president, In-Store and On-Site Business Development, was instrumental in getting the bus to Milton, first tracking it down (in a garage in Minneapolis), negotiating for permits and working with teams bankwide to make the mobile branch a reality. He also negotiated with the Safeway across the street to get space for an in-store location there, which is set to open in the spring.

"What we did is find a short-term solution to put a flag in the ground and say, 'U.S. Bank is still here. We heard you and we care. This community is important,'" Lafrange said.

The mobile branch – with two teller windows, an ATM, an office and tiny "lobby" – eventually arrived in Milton on Nov. 6 and opened for business on Nov. 9, during a rainstorm. But U.S. Bank customers were actually waiting in the parking lot for the branch to open.

Among them, Cheryl Marsh (pictured above taking a selfie with Felt), a personal banking customer who calls the Milton branch employees her kids. At the cold and rainy opening, she recalled the time a few years ago when she went into the branch and the employees could tell she wasn't her usual "bubbly" self.

"They could tell something was terribly wrong … and they asked me what was going on," Marsh said. "I told them my husband was dying … What do you say to that? All the kids could do was give me a big hug, and let me know they were there for me. Eric reassured me that on the banking side, if I needed anything, to just call."

Felt tells a lot of customers that, and gave out his personal cell number to several customers who wanted updates on the Milton branch status. Marsh was the first person he called when it was confirmed that the bus would be coming to town.

"I have never been so proud to work at U.S. Bank. My team is, too," Felt said.

Marko feels the same way. "I'm a 39-year employee, and I have seen our company make some amazing decisions. They took it to a whole new level when they allowed us to mobilize this bus."

Heather Draper is a member of U.S. Bank's public affairs and communications team.