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The Journal Gazette

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Mary Bell, Wells Fargo regional president for Indiana and Ohio: “I can remember when ATMs were the cool thing.”

Wednesday, December 02, 2015 5:11 pm

Banking on new ideas

Sherry Slater The Journal Gazette

Mary Bell’s introduction to banking began long before the debut of a little thing called the Internet.

"I can remember when ATMs were the cool thing," she said.

Now, online accounts and cellphone apps allow customers to do their banking any time from anywhere. Customers can use a cellphone to deposit a birthday check from Grandma or pay for a grande latte.

Bell, who is Wells Fargo’s regional president for Indiana and Ohio, has seen numerous technical revolutions during her 30-year career in banking.

Each leap forward creates ripple effects of change. For example, fewer customers come to branches now to do routine transactions.

"But we still like to get them into our stores so we can understand what their financial goals are," she said.

One of the banking industry’s priorities is keeping customers’ information secure. Wells Fargo has started using voice recognition software internally as a way to restrict access to some sensitive information, Bell said.

Nessa Feddis, senior vice president of consumer protection and payments for the American Bankers Association, believes that advances in technology will drive future changes in banking.

And much of that technology involves security, she said. More companies are using some form of biometrics to guard customer privacy, Feddis said. Biometrics include confirming a person’s identity with fingerprints, iris scans or voice recognition software.

The latter works even when someone’s voice is altered from a cold, she said.

The ABA, an industry group in Washington, tracks myriad industry changes, including the growth of mobile banking. Feddis said customers have adapted to using mobile phones for banking more quickly than experts expected.

Even so, customers’ use of bank branches is tapering off more slowly than expected, she said.

Feddis expects more banks will soon adopt hybrid branches that feature a video connection to a teller working in another location.

The operations are smaller than a traditional branch but larger than a traditional ATM vestibule, she said.

Even as banking transforms with technology, some big-business basics remain the same.

Over the years, Bell has become more interested in those basics, which include managing employees, developing staff and ensuring outstanding customer service.

Wells Fargo has a motto for employee recruitment: "We don’t care how much you know – until we know how much you care."

"We like to get a nice mix when we hire people," Bell said. "We really value diversity."

Wells Fargo has reached out to the local Burmese community, for example. The bank’s Clinton Street-Rudisill Boulevard branch has hired Burmese-born bankers and translated company literature and signs into the South Asian language. Staff also has helped Burmese customers get mortgages.

Fort Wayne is home to a relatively large population of political refugees from Burma, now called Myanmar.

By building relationships with Burmese residents, the bank is trying to tap into the unbanked market, which includes those who haven’t opened accounts with banks because of language barriers, trust issues or other reasons.

But it’s not just the Burmese that local Wells Fargo bankers reach out to. Their diversity efforts include helping Hispanics, blacks and military veterans secure home loans, Bell said.

The bank offers basic financial education classes to both children and adults.

"Really, what we’re in the business of is financial advice," she said. "That’s what we try to do at all stages of your life."

sslater@jg.net