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1/9/2003

‘WaMu’ not your typical branch bank

Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — When you walk inside, you’re in a bank — but it doesn’t look like a bank

“It’s kind of like a Starbucks with money,” said Brad Weber, Washington Mutual’s senior regional manager. “Gap employees with Nordstrom service — that’s what we’re shooting for, at least.”

A couple of things jump out the first time a customer walks into Washington Mutual’s — or “WaMu’s” — Longmont branch in the Fox Creek Marketplace at 17th Avenue and Pace Street. First, casual slacks and relaxed shirts make up the employees’ dress — unusual for a bank. The second is the so-called “Occasio” design, which WaMu debuted in the Las Vegas market and has since brought to its 20 locations along the Front Range it opened in early December.

Washington Mutual had been a known name in Colorado previously because of its “home loan centers” — one of which was in Boulder — but the 20 new “financial centers” introduce the bank as a whole and its Occasio style to this area.

WaMu’s next big plans are for later this year, when they will open some 90 financial centers in the Chicago area, all of them Occasio.

“The whole idea of the design is we want to have it very open and convenient for our customers,” said Brian Gunther, financial center manager for the Longmont branch. “Washington Mutual spent two years developing the design — it’s not a fly-by-night thing.”

Gunther said that of the 1,500 financial centers around the country, approximately 300 are Occasio.

When customers first walk into the bank, they are greeted by the friendly concierge — “kind of like our quarterback,” said Weber. Instead of a counter where customers wait in line for a teller, they are guided to “teller towers,” each of which have a slightly different function.

For withdrawals, customers punch their information into a computer, and then take a paper receipt over to the cash pick-up area where another machine dispenses their money. At no time do the tellers have any access to cash, adding safety for both the customer and the teller, Weber said.

WaMu’s unique approach will be reflected in its advertising, which will soon be showing up in this market, Gunther said. “Like Brad said earlier, we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and our advertising is a direct reflection of that.”

But you can already find the “Action Teller” dolls on sale in WaMu’s lobby. And if your children get tired of playing with the teller dolls in the kids play area, there’s always the Game Boy. Also, Weber says to ask about the baseball cards featuring local WaMu employees.

This week WaMu was named to Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list. One of the reasons cited was the company’s Committed Active Neighbors (CAN!) program, which gives employees four paid hours a month off to do volunteer work in the community.

WaMu also provides tuition reimbursement for its employees. Gunther, now in his 11th year with the company, started as a part-time teller while he was attending college and worked his way up.

Asked whether the Occasio style might be a turn-off to people used to bankers wearing shirts and ties, “That’s a legitimate question,” Weber responded. “If you’re not a strong investment bank, people won’t bank with you.”

And as he points out, WaMu is “the nation’s largest provider and servicer of mortgages” and is listed No. 116 on the Fortune 500.

While the name may seem new around these parts — the style certainly does — what began way back when as the Washington National Building Loan and Investment Association is a strong addition to an already competitive market in a competitive industry.

“Washington Mutual’s got a history going back to 1889,” said Weber. “We’re not a new company — we’re new to Colorado.”

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.