They say history repeats itself, so let’s start there. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the United States experienced a significant immigration wave from Europe that changed our country forever. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these immigrants are referred to today as The Greatest Generation. But there are other waves of immigrants transforming our nation even today.
Whether they came from Cuba in the early 1960s, Vietnam and Southeast Asia in the early 1970s, or Mexico and Central America in the mid-1980s; fleeing communism, war, and economic devastation; these men and women are also changing the face of America.
As an immigrant from Costa Rica, arriving in this country with my parents in the mid-1960s, I know the drive and desire immigrants have to improve their lives in the U.S. However, I was not raised in an immigrant community. So I’ve studied the economic, social, and political issues of these communities.
BB&T, based in Winston-Salem, N.C., has served clients since 1872, operating in the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. BB&T formed the Multicultural Markets division in 2002 in response to the growing diversity in our communities. For example, in Forsyth County, N.C. where BB&T is headquartered, there are 93 languages spoken in the public schools. Nationwide, one-third of the nation is of African, Asian or Latino heritage and 50 percent of children entering public schools are considered multicultural.
So what is driving this change in our national fabric? The growth is the result of the birth rate with nearly zero net immigration, since the beginning of the Great Recession. If it were not for the growth of ethnic populations in many of our markets, the total population in the Southeastern United States would have declined.
We’ve learned that new immigrants have a few common traits: a distrust of financial institutions, difficulty integrating into the national fabric, and the use of check cashing services, money remitters, and payday lenders because they are unbanked or under-banked. But the overall immigrant population also includes entrepreneurs, professionals and foreign nationals that require the skills, knowledge, and financial advice of a bank.
Focused on the rapidly growing Hispanic-Latino population, our first Hispanic Banking Centers began offering marketing material in Spanish. But instead of simply selling bilingual products and services, our goal has always been to help individuals and families achieve economic success and financial security. We seek to truly understand the needs of recent immigrants and their U.S.–born children.
A significant part of this outreach was a series of 12 novella-style audio cassettes and CDs to help listeners learn the basics of financial services, the importance of parental involvement in the schools and traditional civic duties. The “BiBi” tapes, named after the protagonist in the series and available in both in English and Spanish, were distributed though our Hispanic Banking Centers, and throughout the community.
Over time, BB&T expanded its multicultural focus to include all the densely populated Hispanic, African and Asian communities in our markets. It soon became evident BB&T needed more native-speaking associates to address communication and cultural differences. The BB&T Multicultural Markets team was formalized and developed regional strategies, closely coordinated with our Community Banking regions, to better engage and serve this growing client base.
BB&T also opened non-traditional mini-branches that offered compact lobbies, native-speaking staffs and relevant marketing materials. These financial centers could quickly be opened in shopping centers and areas convenient to ethnic communities. Later, this became the genesis for our VECINO (Spanish for neighbor) branch concept, which is the present-day branding approach for BB&T’s Multicultural Banking Centers.
In the wake of the Great Recession and sluggish economic growth, financial institutions are all recognizing the need to seek new revenue streams. Markets that were previously unbanked or under-banked now represent huge growth opportunities. In the last 12 years, BB&T has positioned itself to capture this opportunity through the execution of our vision, mission, and values, all the while helping the communities we live in be better places to live and work.
As I have learned throughout my career, consistent with the culture of BB&T, you must know your client before you can truly serve them. It’s all about the relationship, which is very different from a transactional-type service model. We believe our emphasis on human engagement, aided by media, marketing, language, and culturally relevant support, has allowed BB&T to consistently earn some of the highest client satisfaction scores in the industry.
In the Hispanic markets hiring more Spanish-speaking associates, evaluated through a third-party language assessment, has given BB&T not just linguistic skills but also cultural relevancy. All other attributes being equal, we also make a concerted effort to ensure that new hires have specific foreign language skills. It has been interesting to observe the high engagement level of these BB&T associates, which is reflected in their delivery of our client sales and service process. Our staffing model is our most competitive advantage.
The challenge remains for every marketer: how do you reach and serve clients and prospects? The banking industry was once a demand-driven model, where individuals and businesses came in and shared their hopes and dreams with us. Today, it is a supply driven model, where individuals simply use their handheld device to access a plethora of solutions from basic banking services to insurance solutions and business platforms. The future of the branch, the primary distribution channel of the banking industry, is unclear. Community events and festivals require weighing the investment against the cost of employee hours, membership and sponsorship fees, weekend work schedules and promotional materials. A public distrust of the banking industry also remains in the collective memory of the general population.
Today it is very clear we must take our team members, knowledge and solutions to the places where our clients are comfortable – where they work, learn, and worship.
Let’s start with the workplace. A large percentage of our new retail households are reached through building business relationships with their employers. We provide exclusive benefits for the employees with the products and services provided through our BB&T@Work program. At the place of business, BB&T@Work sales officers make presentations, conduct benefit sessions and provide financial knowledge to these prospects.
Taking financial education to members of the faith community, notably houses of worship that bank with BB&T, creates another opportunity to meet potential multicultural clients. This approach has helped us gain the awareness and advice of clergy from various faiths. A high-pressure sales pitch might be inappropriate in this environment. But with an approach that offers basic financial literacy, it opens a door for our associates to be more visible and build relationships with members of the various congregations.
BB&T is taking financial education to the places where people learn. This includes public schools, community colleges, historically black colleges and universities (HBCU’s), and traditional colleges and universities. We’re focused on having an ongoing presence at these institutions rather than only showing up on campus at the start of the year.
We believe BB&T financial centers should become classrooms where we can teach clients and members of our communities how to better manage their money and make better financial decisions. When individuals make wiser financial decisions, they are more likely to achieve their life goals. I believe that is how WE in the banking business will also reach our goals.
Luis Lobo serves as the Executive Vice President and Manager of Multicultural Markets for BB&T. Most recently he was President for BB&T’s Washington Metropolitan Region based in Washington, D.C. BB&T (Branch Bank and Trust) is the tenth largest bank in the US and was recently recognized by Greenwich and Associates with 20 awards of excellence in Commercial and Small Business services. Based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the 143 year old bank has 1900 branches in 12 states ranging from the Frederick-Baltimore area in the north to Florida in the south and as far west as Kentucky and Texas.