On the surface they seem like an unlikely pair.
Walmart Stores, a global corporation and the epitome of U.S. capitalism, and $1 billion-asset Urban Partnership Bank, a community development bank that's trying to fix one Chicago neighborhood at a time.
But their interests have intersected in historic Windy City district that is making a comeback, underscoring how much their customer bases actually overlap.
Urban announced Thursday it would open a branch inside a Walmart set to open this summer in the Pullman neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. Walmart is the linchpin of a commercial development intended to revitalize an area that has been in decline for decades.
"Our commitment is to help create economic opportunities that revitalize underserved neighborhoods," says William Farrow, president and chief executive of Urban Partnership. "That kind of activity, whether if it is with individuals or business owners, doesn't happen unless they engage a bank. That's why we are here."
If anything, Walmart and Urban Partnership share a talent for making news in the financial services world.
Urban Partnership is backed by a $140 million of capital raised by former Comptroller of the Currency Eugene Ludwig, who is now chief executive of Promontory Financial.
The money was raised from the country's largest financial firms to save ShoreBank, the country's first community development bank. The onetime darling of the Clinton Administration felt the effects of the downturn acutely and failed in 2010. The money was then redirected to a new entity Urban Partnership to buy ShoreBank's operations from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Meanwhile, Walmart has a storied history of trying to find ways to enter the banking industry. It has a suite of products targeting the traditionally unbanked and underbanked communities with things like remittance and prepaid cards. Banking lobbyists have rallied hard to keep the retailer out of banking, but they generally find in-store branches like the one Urban Partnership is planning acceptable.
For Urban Partnership, the new location has long been requested by the community, including residents of nearby northwestern Indiana. The in-store branch fits into the bank's "micro-branch" strategy, which the bank's executives say is more welcoming to its customers than a traditional branch. The bank has opened four micro-branches across Chicago in the last 18 months.
"There has been an interest and a demand for a facility in this area; it is something we've heard since the bank started," Farrow says. "And our goal is to provide an environment that embraces customers."
Urban Partnership follows Urban Trust Bank in Lake Mary, Fla., a similarly focused community development bank, in putting its branches in Walmart stores. A call to Urban Trust was not returned, but the bank's website shows that all but one of its 20 branches in Florida are in Walmart supercenters.
A spokeswoman for the Bentonville, Ark. retailer, says the partnerships are intended to meet the needs of the community. It still offers its own set of products, though.
"We want to meet the needs of our customers by bringing in their local bank," says Sarah Spencer of Walmart. "It is an extra layer of convenience. We will continue to offer the products that we already do we are offering customers choice."
The customers will decide which products to favor, says Jane Thompson, the founder and former president of Walmart's financial services.
"It is always good for Walmart to have a bank in a supercenter," Thompson says, who now runs a financial consultancy. "What we noted when there was a money center and a bank, was that customers segment themselves. They define the format they want."
Although most of Walmart's in-store branches belong to traditional banks, the pairing of Urban Partnership in Pullman makes sense.
"For this neighborhood and this store in this city, it is a good fit," says Thompson, who lives in the Chicago area and now advises banks on how to target unbanked and underbanked communities.
Banks of all sizes and business types could learn from this model, says Jeannine Jacokes, the chief executive of Partners for the Common Good in Washington and a board member of the Coalition of Community Development Financial Institutions.
"Why wouldn't you try to be where your customers are?" Jacokes says. "It is just generally a good business strategy."