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Branching Out

A new bank on Milwaukee’s South Side is a sign that things are moving forward – in more ways
than one.

PNC Bank’s new branch at the corner of Cesar E. Chavez Drive and National Avenue is a visible example of how progress is manifested. In this case, the driving forces are 1) technology, and its impact on an evolving industry, and 2) America’s growing Hispanic population, and how that’s redefining a Milwaukee neighborhood.

This bank is decidedly different. For one, it has no tellers. Instead, there are four ATMs equipped to do anything a teller could do, a “discovery table” with tablets and computers for online banking demonstrations, and a team of associates prepped to handle everything from opening a checking account to making a home mortgage loan.

This approach aims to address the three generations of banking clients, says Christopher Goller, PNC’s regional president for Wisconsin. “I think about the three women in my life,” he says. “I think about my mom, who only wants to go in a branch, my wife, will go online but will also go in a branch, and my daughter, who may never write a check in her life. So how do you serve all three of those groups and do that well? We think this is the way.”

After entering the market in 2008, PNC has spent more than $50 million to build 11 brand-new branches in southeastern Wisconsin, with this being the “latest and greatest,” says Ryan Alwood, area manager for Wisconsin. By April 1, the rest of PNC’s 34 area branches will be converted to the no-teller arrangement.

The do-it-all staff members at this particular branch all have something in common – they’re bilingual.

“We want to be a Main Street bank,” says Alwood. “What that means to me is that you’re there to serve the community that we’re located in.”

During the first week the branch was open, branch manager Julie Crespo Martinez says, “75 percent of the time we spoke Spanish.” That’s not always the case at other banks, she says. “A client told me that one time, he had to sit there for two hours at a previous bank to wait for somebody [who spoke Spanish].”

This largely Hispanic community on the near-South Side was identified by PNC Bank as one ripe with opportunity to do something bigger and broader.

“For communities to thrive, you need banks,” says Goller. “If you think about our strategy, we’re going to make a lot of small business loans, we’re going to make a lot of home mortgage loans, we’re going to make a lot of loans to people that you find within a half-mile radius of right here.”

Gene Manzanet, PNC community development adviser, says this branch’s opening is a major indicator that the neighborhood is on the upswing.

“The optics of the near-South Side are changing,” he says. “And we’re part of that. The mere mention that we were going to have a presence on Chavez Drive was clearly well-received, and it was one of those important pieces that [showed] that major corporations are investing in our community. That resonated.”

PNC’s partnerships with South Side organizations such as Journey House (where PNC was part of its redevelopment), the United Community Center, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Center for the Spanish Speaking, the Latino Entrepreneurial Network of Southeast Wisconsin, and the Cesar E. Chavez Business Improvement District (an organization Manzanet works with personally), along with reaching out to the neighborhood’s alderman, Jose Perez, have been important pieces of the Pittsburgh-based bank’s integration into the neighborhood.

Manzanet says there are clear indications that there is a major shift happening around Cesar Chavez Drive, from brick-and-mortar developments to initiatives like the Cesar Chavez BID’s “Farm Project,” to the volume of business and home lending he sees on a day-to-day basis. He’s also working with the BID on a proposal to have the Forest Home Library relocated to Chavez Drive in a mixed-use space with a coffee house and more than 50 new apartments.

“People are extremely excited about the momentum,” he says. “We’re glad we’re a part of it. Some people actually say we’re leading it, which is something to take pride in. Being an employee here – a Hispanic employee – I take a lot of pride in working for a company that supports you in that sense in your community. To me, that means everything.”

This story appears in the February, 2015, issue of Milwaukee MagazineClick here to subscribe.



Dan Shafer was the digital editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Dan joined the magazine as assistant editor in 2014 and wrote the November 2014 cover story, "Downtown Horizons." He's worked as a reporter at BizTimes Milwaukee and an editor at ThirdCoast Digest. Contact him at daniel.shafer@milwaukeemag.com. He's on Twitter @danshaferMKE.