It was the typical Friday after-work rush at the Wells Fargo Prosperity branch on St. Paul’s East Side. Even with four tellers, the line inside to see a banker was about 30 people deep.
A steady stream of customers made their way through the door as greeters welcomed them in various languages.
As mobile banking has many lenders focusing on digital tools and larger banks like Wells Fargo closing branches by the thousands in recent years, the branch on Phalen Boulevard is an anomaly.
In terms of customer over-the-counter transactions and banker interactions, the branch is among Wells Fargo’s busiest, ranking in the top 1 percent of its branches nationally.
The branch is also one of its most diverse, with 15 languages spoken there any given day from Spanish to Hmong to Burmese. Most of the Wells Fargo staff at the location are multilingual, and nearly all are ethnically diverse. Bank officials said many of the branch’s customers are immigrants who may not have much experience with traditional U.S. financial institutions.
“I saw that they serve the customer and they have patience and they help people,” said Nathan Vang, 40, of St. Paul, a customer who emigrated from Laos.
Wells Fargo is the second-largest bank in Minnesota based on market share behind U.S. Bancorp, according to the FDIC. Wells Fargo has 152 community-banking branches in the state.
A year ago, Wells Fargo said it would close 800 bank branches across the country by 2020, citing the customer flight to online and mobile banking.
Wells Fargo has plenty of company in its flight from brick-and-mortar branches. Bank of America Corp., PNC Financial Services Group Inc. and SunTrust Banks Inc. have also cut branches in recent years. As of June 2018, the number of bank offices in the United States has dropped to a little more than 88,000 according to FDIC data. In 2013, there were more than 96,000 branches.
Since 2017, Wells Fargo has closed approximately 10 branches in Minnesota, many of which were drive-through banks or in proximity to another branch. But Wells Fargo’s Prosperity branch doesn’t appear to be a candidate for shuttering.
Especially on the weekends and Fridays, the bank is bustling. The parking lot is usually full with more cars parked along the busy boulevard as well as in impromptu spots where signs warn of no parking at any time. Customers line up at the drive-through ATMs as well.
Part of the reason for the lines is that bankers usually take more time than average interacting with customers at the branch, said Crystal Risvold, a Wells Fargo regional services consultant. Over-the-counter cash transactions such as check cashing, deposits and withdrawals are higher at the branch vs. other locations where a higher share of transactions might be done digitally, she said.
“Here you get paid, you still go to the bank and get money,” Risvold said.
For many people new to the country, mobile and digital banking may be a foreign concept.
“I came to America in 2004,” said branch manager Luai Bajjali, who emigrated from Jordan. “I didn’t know what a debit card was. I didn’t use a debit card. It didn’t mean that I was not educated. It just wasn’t culturally used. When I came to America, I learned and I adapted. … I just think we need to have that continuous education.”
The branch is staffed with more than 30 people, while a Wells Fargo branch its size typically averages 16 to 20 people.
“We are meeting customers where they are at,” Risvold said. “A lot of banks are going digital and we absolutely are as well. We have so many different digital options, but we are also allowing customers to do their banking the way they want to.”
Wells Fargo hasn’t always had the best reputation for its relationship with marginalized communities. In 2012, Wells Fargo agreed to pay at least $175 million to settle with the Justice Department over allegations it steered black and Latino borrowers into mortgages with higher fees and rates than white borrowers during the housing boom. The bank denied the allegations. Last year, the city of Sacramento, Calif., sued Wells Fargo for similar accusations.
In St. Paul, Prosperity branch workers have conducted seminars on financial literacy and the basics of banking at the nearby Hmong Village shopping center, the Karen Organization of Minnesota, Metro State University, and Como Park Senior High School. They have also attended events like the Hmong New Year celebrations in St. Paul and the Dragon Festival boat races at Lake Phalen.
Another reason for the longer amount of time with customers at the Prosperity branch is that the bank has so many customers who don’t speak English as their first language.
One or two greeters are usually stationed near the doors, asking customers about their needs and their language preference. Many of the Wells Fargo team members at the branch speak more than two languages.
Bajjali, who is fluent in Arabic, said he has learned some Spanish and Somali during his time working at the branch and has started to pick up on Hmong and Karen words as well. While the bank has an interpreter line it could use and some documents in Spanish and English, often the bank employees act as language interpreters.
“If customers go to a bank and they see people who can serve them and speak to them in their native language … that overcomes a lot of initial barriers,” said Va-Megn Thoj, executive director at the St. Paul-based Asian Economic Development Association (AEDA), who banks at the Prosperity branch.
AEDA provides education on financial literacy and offers consumer products such as personal and small business loans to residents, many of whom are of Asian descent and may not qualify for products at traditional financial institutions.
Large banks can go even further to better serve underbanked minority communities by offering beneficial financial products like credit cards with lower interest rates that are designed to build credit, Thoj said.
St. Paul’s East Side, which is made up of four neighborhoods, is a melting pot of different immigrant groups and cultures. The Greater East Side neighborhood where the branch is located has a population of about 39 percent white, 27 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 16 percent black and 13 percent Latino, according to 2016 Minnesota Compass data largely derived from the U.S. Census Bureau.
About 23 percent of residents in the neighborhood are estimated to be foreign-born. Around 38 percent of people speak a language other than English with close to 21 percent saying that they speak English less than “very well.”
Bank officials said Wells Fargo locations like the Nicollet-Lake branch and the bank near the Hi-Lake Shopping Center both in south Minneapolis as well as a branch in Eden Prairie are also busy and diverse.
“It makes sense,” said Kevin Barker, a financial analyst with Piper Jaffray & Co., on why those branches are staying busy. He added, “But I think in general there continues to be a very strong push toward more noncash transactions that is occurring in an accelerated rate across the U.S.”
In the future, experts estimate there will be less of a concentration of branches, smaller branch footprints, and more automation within those branches, Barker said.
Still, that doesn’t mean that branches are dead.
“Banks will open and close branches depending on traffic so if there’s a lot of traffic they will keep it open,” he said.