Umpqua Bank in Portland, Ore., has always been a bit unconventional in an otherwise straitlaced industry, known for offering yoga classes in its branches and selling locally made artisanal goods.

(Yes, Umpqua is so Portland.)

But two years ago, when Umpqua doubled in size by acquiring Sterling Financial in Spokane, Wash., the company was worried about losing its lighthearted, alternative edge.

So it added a "culture enhancement" executive to its leadership suite.

"At Umpqua, culture has always been something they see as their greatest asset and greatest differentiator," said Marty Dickinson, the culture guru and an executive vice president at the $23 billion-asset company.

Over the past few years banks across the industry have added nontraditional jobs to the C-suite. But fast-growing firms in particular have looked to chief culture officers to keep their original, small-company spark alive.

In some cases, the culture officers oversee entire human resources divisions, responsible for payroll, benefits and other paperwork-intensive tasks.

But they typically downplay the bureaucratic parts of their jobs.

"I don't ever want to be referred to as an HR person," said Amy Zimmerman, head of people at the marketplace lender Kabbage.

HR executives have a reputation for being sticklers for the rules, Zimmerman said. And that simply does not jibe with the workplace at Kabbage, where no words are off-limits, and employees are not punished for making mistakes.

"We treat people as people," Zimmerman said.

At Umpqua, Dickinson has implemented a series of initiatives to maintain happiness in the workplace.

For instance, employees are required to attend a 10-minute morning meeting — called a "motivational moment" — but they are not allowed to talk about work, Dickinson said.

The goal is to start the day on a fun note. On some days the meetings feature activities such as a marshmallow toss, or a guest speaker from a local nonprofit.

The get-togethers are "intended solely for the purpose of allowing associates to simply connect with each other," Dickinson said.

Bell State Bank & Trust in Fargo, N.D., has also added a high-ranking culture guru.

Julie Peterson Klein, who in 2014 became Bell's chief culture officer, joined the $3.7 billion-asset company 17 years ago. Bell was a much smaller place back then, and it had a traditional HR executive on staff.

But as the company grew larger — it has nearly doubled in size over the past five years — the top HR role "evolved on its own" into a culture-focused position, Klein said.

Bell's leadership wanted to preserve its "family atmosphere," she added.

Klein oversees all of the company's traditional HR functions. Additionally, she organizes events for employees, including an annual, Oscars-style award ceremony.

The ceremony takes place each year at a historic theater downtown. Bell rents "every limo in town" to pick up employees who are honored for "going above and beyond" their everyday jobs.

"As you grow, you need to continue to be focused on what's important," Klein said.

At Kabbage, Zimmerman describes herself as a safekeeper of the company's scrappy, upstart culture.

Kabbage has doubled in size over the past year, to nearly 300 employees. The Atlanta-based company offers same-day business loans — often in competition with traditional banks.

"We are disrupting the way banks do everything," Zimmerman said.

As Kabbage has expanded, it has been deliberate about whom it brings on board. The company aims to attract a diverse group of people who have similar dispositions, according to Zimmerman.

Kabbage looks for people who enjoy working in a serious industry without having to be "serious people," Zimmerman said.

Recent college graduates account for the bulk of Kabbage's workforce. For them, the workplace is often an "extension of their fraternity," she said.

The company has both a full bar and a pool table on site. It also has many of the perks that are now standard in the tech industry: free snacks, on-site exercise classes and unlimited vacation.

There are even emoji pillows in the lobby.

As for the company's older, more mature employees, they typically view the casual workplace as a "breath of fresh air" from the traditional business world.

"I believe fundamentally that if you don't get your culture right, your business won't succeed," Zimmerman said. "You'll lose a lot of people."

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.