A bank branch in downtown East Hartford was closed three years ago, an all-too-familiar victim of another financial services merger.
But in September, the branch is set to reopen under M&T Bank ownership, as the lender rolls out its first ‘multicultural’ branch in Greater Hartford following its recent acquisition of Bridgeport-based People’s United Bank.
Buffalo-based M&T says it has created 118 multicultural branches in the past three years. The branches include posters with images of particular cultures. Signs are in other languages in addition to English, and digital appointment scheduling offers different options to eliminate language barriers. In East Hartford, the predominant bilingual language will be Spanish.
“You would see bankers who are not only Hispanic but also fluent in Spanish,” said David Femi, who leads M&T’s multicultural banking team. “One of the things we’ve done at the bank is to help our employees not only serve their customers better, but also be authentic.”
If an employee passes a language proficiency assessment and works in a multicultural branch, there is a 10% salary premium, Femi said.
M&T Bank tapped into the fact that the country’s multicultural communities had become a key driver of the country’s population growth and future job creation.
The approach also makes good business sense to continue to grow M&T’s consumer and small business banking base, especially in a market like Connecticut where it is not widely known.
“Ultimately, developing cultural fluidity helps us be the bank of choice for our multicultural communities,” Femi said.
Femi said M&T is still evaluating future multicultural branch locations in Connecticut. But a community reinvestment plan required in the acquisition of People’s United calls for the addition of 115 multicultural branches as part of a commitment to serve communities and people of color. People’s United branches operated in Connecticut and five other states.
The East Hartford branch will certainly fill a market hole in the city left by the closure of a People’s United branch in a now closed Stop & Shop supermarket.
But East Hartford’s location also makes demographic sense.
East Hartford has experienced dramatic population change over the past three decades. In the early 1990s, the population was 80% white and 20% non-white.
Today, the split has reversed to 80% non-white and 20% white. Of the nonwhite population, about one-third are Hispanic, about 30% are black, about 6% are Asian, and the rest are a wide range of immigrant groups, according to East Hartford Mayor Michael P. Walsh.
“It’s a market that’s looking for that kind of customer service, whether it’s a different language or the intricacies that each culture brings to the table. I think it’s a smart move on their part,” Walsh said.
Walsh said he was already considering how the city could work with M&T. The city established a business and economic development fund focused on women- and minority-owned businesses with funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.
“If there’s a way to complement each other, I look for it,” Walsh said.
M&T said it also sees the East Hartford branch as becoming a “community hub” teaching budgeting, how to own a home responsibly, and learning not just how to start a business, but also how to build it.
For decades, banks have been founded to meet the needs of specific ethnic communities in the United States, sometimes in response to their being ignored by more traditional lenders or, in some cases, by redlining. In recent years, however, a wide range of mainstream companies have made it a priority to reach out to communities of color as well as the LGBTQ+ community.
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“Having someone behind the counter who speaks Spanish would be a really, really big plus,” said David Cadden, professor emeritus of entrepreneurship and strategy at Quinnipiac University. “With an ethnic immigrant community, you have to overcome the barrier of people worrying about putting money in the banks. You have to build trust.
The need for more banks to establish a presence in ethnically diverse neighborhoods and focus on the local community is being felt in nearby Hartford.
In the city’s Upper Albany neighborhood, for example, there is only one bank and one credit union. The city is trying to attract a bank for the development of a city-owned parcel at the corner of Albany Avenue and Woodland Street.
M&T Bank had 10 branches in Fairfield County, including a multicultural office in Brookfield, before acquiring People’s United.
Femi said Connecticut is fertile ground for his multicultural banking strategy, given its racial and ethnic diversity.
“We want to show up as people expect us to show up,” Femi said.
Kenneth R. Gosselin can be reached at [email protected]