Some of Jane Thompson's favorite banks are the ones that no longer exist.
The former head of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s financial services unit recently praised the customer service and approachable layout at the bank branches that inspired her design of the retailer's in-store MoneyCenters. Those kiosks allow Wal-Mart customers to cash checks, pay their bills and wire money to relatives, all without access to a bank account.
Thompson gives the most credit to Washington Mutual Inc., which developed a famously open and untraditional branch style — before it collapsed into JPMorgan Chase & Co. during the financial crisis.
"WaMu — I can remember studying them, going to visit their branches. They had a really welcoming atmosphere," Thompson recalled during a recent interview. "There was an innovative bank trying to do things their way — but they all got acquired."
The Seattle company was famous for its futuristic Occasio branches, which replaced teller windows with free-standing "pods" and had roving employees greeting customers as they came in. JPMorgan Chase, which bought WaMu's banking operations in 2008, eventually replaced those branches with the far more staid, box-on-every-corner style.
When Thompson's team was planning the layout of Wal-Mart's MoneyCenters, "we looked at banks that were really good at serving customers and their branches were more innovative and more welcoming," she says. "Some of those banks are gone — we were trying to learn from them."
But Washington Mutual's influence lives on at Wal-Mart, despite the long-adversarial relationship between the banking industry and the world's largest retailer. (The MoneyCenter design was probably not the legacy WaMu chief executive Kerry K. Killinger had in mind when he famously compared his bank to Wal-Mart, saying he wanted to do to the banking industry "what Wal-Mart did to theirs.")
American Banker this month gave Thompson its annual Innovator of the Year award, for her work developing alternative financial services for low-income consumers. She retired in June after running the financial services unit at Wal-Mart for nine years.