Carolina Premier Bank in Charlotte, N.C., hopes its blend of Southern charm and robust technology will be a hit with residents in the nation's capital.
The $236 million-asset company recently opened a branch in Washington, where it plans to use eye-catching features, including a robot, to lure customers. In recent years, some small banks have added fun touches like coffee bars and community rooms in efforts to reinvigorate branches.
A small bank, such as Carolina Premier, would be challenged to stand out in a cluttered market such as Washington, industry experts say. "When banks come into a large metro market, they need to find a way to stand out," says Mary Beth Sullivan, managing partner at Capital Performance Group.
Carolina Premier, a unit of Premara Financial, is confident that it will distinguish itself from established banks. "Our goal was to be anything but a traditional bank," says John Kreighbaum, the bank's president and chief executive.
"The values of the bank as it relates to its relationships with customers are very traditional but the drivers of the bank and our ability to serve our market are rooted in the 21st century," Kreighbaum adds.
Carolina Premier operates as Premara Bank in Washington, a brand that will eventually apply to the entire bank, Kreighbaum says. Premara will target the thousands of trade associations, nonprofits and advocacy groups in Washington, he says.
Premara has also has an expressed interest in building branches and pursuing acquisitions in Washington, northern Virginia and the Carolinas.
Washington should be attractive to North Carolina banks, says David Powell, president of Vitex. The market provides access to a wealthy, international population and is relatively immune to extreme economic downturns because of government spending.
"The government will always spend money," Powell says. "They may cut here . . . but then they will spend there."
For now, Premara is operating out of temporary space; an actual retail branch is set to open in October. The branch is located in a high-traffic area just a few blocks from the White House.
Premara plans to introduce prospects to PremBot, a robot with a monitor for a head that employees can control remotely. In the morning, PremBot will likely be used to interact with passersby; at other times it will greet customers entering the branch.
"People are going to see and hear about the robot," Sullivan says. Premara "could get an immense amount of publicity since they are doing something different enough. I like that for small companies entering big markets."
The bank will also use interactive technology inside the branch and in the lobby's windows, Kreighbaum says. The branch will have a futuristic look with an open floor plan and glass partitions.
Branch transformation is "at the top of mind for every banker that I talk to," Powell says, though most small banks tend to shy away from sweeping changes.
This isn't the first time that Carolina Premier has added unusual touches to a floor plan. At one of its Charlotte branches, loan officers and customers often sip lemonade or Cheerwine, a popular Southern soft drink, while sitting in rocking chairs on a 100-year-old front porch. Some branches have fireplaces, spiral staircases and tree stump coffee tables.
"They are trying in their own special way to reinvent banking to make it more customer friendly," says R. Lee Burrows Jr., chief executive of Banks Street Partners. "Their branches are very comfortable when you walk in and the technology they use is impressive."
Banks making changes must make sure that new branch strategies still fit with their overall branding, Sullivan says. Also, an idea should mesh with the market, she adds. For instance, rocking chairs and a cozy environment might work well in North Carolina, while new technology could be more attractive to customers in Washington.
At first glance, Premara's strategy could appear disjointed. Still, an approach that blends old and new ideas can succeed, since the underlying objective involves getting to know customers, Sullivan says.
Kreighbaum says that, deep down, the bank is "old fashioned," to the extent that employees are trained on social etiquette including how to properly answer the phone.
"We'll knock the socks off our big brethren on service," Kreighbaum says. "We are going to leverage that friendliness with new technology."