Banks hiring many with retailing backgrounds

As teller windows fade, people skills are needed

November 16, 2003|By Mark Skertic | Mark Skertic,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - Chris Reilly had two reactions when he got a call from a Bank of America Corp. recruiter asking if he was interested in a job: He figured it was either a college buddy playing a joke or a headhunter who had found the wrong guy.

But Reilly, an executive with Enterprise Rent-A-Car, quickly learned that he was exactly the sort of person some banks are now looking for.

In September, Reilly, 37, was named Bank of America's consumer market executive in Chicago, in charge of hiring, working on new branch openings and "creating a new culture in the bank," he said.

He's part of a growing trend that has seen banks in Chicago and elsewhere looking for people with retail backgrounds - employees who know how to rent out cars or sell things like cell phones, lattes or jeans. With training, they are becoming bankers who can do the same with checking accounts and retirement programs.

It's a movement that is taking hold in a variety of banks.

Reggie Buchanan, 33, a former director of sales development with Best Buy Co. in the East, wasn't interested when he got a call similar to Reilly's.

"I just didn't see it," said Buchanan, who is training to run a branch for Bank One Corp. "I don't play with numbers. I sell stuff to people."

Buchanan was persuaded to give it a try by a family friend who was already in banking. He said he considers himself engaging and friendly, qualities he wants in the people he will hire.

"The skills are extremely transferable from a selling capacity," he said. "In a way, it's exactly what I was doing at my previous employer."

Necessity is forcing many banks to embrace practices that are expected in retail shops, said Charlene Stern, a consultant with New Ground, a company that works with businesses who want to change their image. Her clients include Bank of America, LaSalle Bank and PNC Bank.

"The reason this movement has been successful is that banks have been successful in using technology for all the wrong reasons," she said. "They've shrunk their relationship with their customers to a three-by-five card that people carry in their wallets.

"They taught customers to price-shop. They discouraged conversation. They devalued the people who work in their branches. If you wanted a career path, your promotion was out of retail," Stern said.

Some banks have expanded the effort beyond just hiring. They have incorporated retail concepts into the design of banks, making them places that more resemble a Starbucks than the staid financial institutions that have been the model for more than a century.

Washington Mutual has abandoned teller windows. Now, bank associates greet customers at kiosks.

They don't even hand out money. If you go in to cash a check or change a $20, you'll be handed a slip of paper with a special code. Take it to the bank's "cash dispenser" machine and your money will pop out.

There are still teller windows at some Bank of America branches, but there are also plasma-screen computers at workstations. If customers want to stop in and do banking online, a computer is available to them. At Bank One, employees wear casual uniforms, and a new training emphasis has been placed on customer relations.

"I'm less focused on where we hire people from. To me, the big deal is the type of person we hire," said Charles Scharf, Bank One president and chief executive of retail banking. "You can't teach personality to someone."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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