Need a checking account in a Haitian neighborhood in Queens? Ask Astoria Federal Savings and Loan Association in Creole for a kont kouran- yo, and the bank will know what you're talking about.

How about a home mortgage in the Portuguese area of Brooklyn? Greater New York Savings Bank can supply an emprestimos a habitacao.

After years of operating in increasingly diverse urban ethnic neighborhoods in cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, and Houston, a small but growing number of banks and thrifts have learned the value of knowing-and speaking-the language of their customers.

"If you can smile in Italian and Chinese to an Italian or Chinese person, you're better off," said Charles J. Hamm, president and chief executive of $3.7 billion-asset Independence Savings Bank in New York. "And if they know you're a neighbor, that's all the better."

In fact, very few banks make the effort of going beyond English, or perhaps Spanish or Chinese.

But those that have learned to sell in multiple languages-among them Astoria, Greater New York, and Chicago's First Security Federal Savings Bank-point to resulting growth and improved profits.

The average Brooklyn branch of Greater New York, for example, has $147 million of deposits, more than $100 million above the national branch average.

"It's common sense, but you'd be surprised how many banks miss it," said Gerard C. Keegan, president and chief executive officer of Greater New York.

As other community banks dig deeper to find the right product or geographic niche for their markets, they're reaping benefits from going the extra mile to develop relationships with immigrants.

"It's something that represents an opportunity for banks that service immigrant communities," said Thomas F. Theurkauf, analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods in New York. "There's a business there. It's an attractive one, and in many cases it's a growing one."

Ethnically focused banks say they have achieved success by penetrating the growing and changing immigrant communities in which they operate.

In an effort to overcome the language barrier and make immigrants more comfortable in the branches, the banks have sought to hire branch staff from ethnic neighborhoods. That assures that at least someone at the branch will speak the customers' language, and may provide some familiar and reassuring faces to greet immigrants.

Mr. Hamm estimated that Independence officials do business in at least eight languages each day, and branch employees speak 25 to 30.

Workers at Greater New York speak about the same number of languages. The bank has translated brochures into six languages, including Yiddish and Creole, and installed messages in all six on its automated teller machines.

"As far as we knew, no other bank had Yiddish screens," Mr. Keegan said. "It was a real achievement for us to get that up and running."

In Boston, employees of Massachusetts Co-operative Bank speak Vietnamese and Cape Verdean, an offshoot of Portugese. In Chicago, Devon Bank advertises that its staff is multilingual, while First Security Federal requires that all employees be bilingual and posts announcements in seven or eight languages on bulletin boards in its offices.

"I've got German, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Romanian, Hebrew, you name it," said Julian E. Kulas, president and chief executive officer of $262 million-asset First Security Federal.

Metrobank, a $470 million-asset institution in Houston, publishes its materials in Spanish, Chinese, and Vietnamese and advertises in Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Filipino. It has employees who know these languages, plus Cambodian and several Indian dialects.

William Strunk, chairman at Strunk and Associates, a Houston investment bank, said such strategies clearly can be profitable. Immigrants "are looking for someone to give them the personal attention."

And bankers who routinely deal with immigrants say they're among the most stable customers.

"Once they become your customers, they are very grateful for the investment that you put forth for them and will be loyal customers for the long term," Mr. Keegan said.

The immigrants are also often safer customers, said Mr. Kulas. "They've been economically deprived in their homelands," he said. "When they get here, they're very thrifty. They will not buy a home unless they're comfortable that they can meet their obligations."

With immigration continuing, bankers see their opportunities expanding.

"Today, you can walk down 13th Avenue and think you're in 18th-century Europe," Mr. Keegan said of one Brooklyn neighborhood. "You can walk down other parts of Brighton Beach and think you're in Moscow. It's great for community banks."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.