What a Bright Idea

Comfy chairs, tester tablets and Ms. Pac-Man: Farmers State Bank’s innovative lobby stands out from the crowd

By Ellen Ryan

Lie back in a leather massage chair or recliner, your eyes closed. With the sound of giggling children and the scent of coffee in the air, you might be soothed into thinking you’re in your own living room at home. Except, is that also the sound of a change-counting machine nearby?

Open your eyes and look around. This is the spacious, light-filled lobby of Farmers State Bank in Waterloo, Iowa, the flagship location of a 10-branch, $850 million-asset community bank.

It’s not blandly severe. No imposing tin ceilings and chandeliers, either. “We moved into this office building two years ago and found we had lots of room,” says CEO Rod Duroe. “We decided to do something different.”

Farmers State Bank

Waterloo, Iowa
Assets: $850 million
Retail locations: 10
Employees: 105
Founded: 1879
Website: www.fsb1879.com

Farmers State Bank has been growing, and this new building is the evidence for all of Black Hawk County. Organized as a private bank in 1879, it originally specialized in agricultural loans. Expansion has taken it into Bremer County and also into a specialty in commercial lending. More than 60 percent of its loans are now commercial.

Focus on local business
This gradual shift over the past 20 years has included an emphasis on Small Business Administration loans and outreach to the range of local business, which includes John Deere, Tyson Fresh Meats, Covenant Medical Center and Allen Hospital, Bertch Cabinets, Omega Cabinets, a Target distribution center, the University of Northern Iowa and Hawkeye Community College, as well as mom-and-pop businesses.

Large manufacturers, a school district and municipal governments are some clients that have moved from big banks to Farmers State Bank, says chief operating officer Wes Becker. “It’s a selling point that they can talk to a person and not sit on hold or get transferred out of state,” he points out. “Businesses like that all decisions are made right here in town.”

Evolving atrium
After Farmers State Bank’s flagship branch outgrew its space across a divided highway, its new lobby was a giant atrium between two buildings. Duroe and Becker thought through the changing needs and wants of their customers and installed a lobby around the following:

Kids and companions. Half of Farmers State Bank’s employees and the heaviest concentration of its business customers come to this branch, which closes a lot of paper-heavy mortgage loans. It also opens a lot of savings, checking and retirement accounts. Though transaction volume is declining, visits for these take significant time.

Kids and companions don’t want to stand for 30 to 45 minutes, and fellow customers don’t want unhappy children around. So the community bank not only has comfy places to sit (a suede couch and those big leather chairs) but also lamps, side tables, Wi-Fi and coffee. Kids’ favorite part? The two-player Ms. Pac-Man unit with 20 video games loaded.

“Better to [try out devices] themselves, with us helping.”
—wes becker,
Farmers State Bank

Devices. “How do I get this mobile banking thing to work on my phone?” “OK, click the next button … no, no, the one below that.”

Demonstrating a banking app to a customer can be difficult enough on your desktop, let alone over the telephone. In the new lobby, Farmers State Bank has found a solution.

If a customer brings in her own device, a staffer can show her how to image a check or do bill pay or internet banking. If she doesn’t bring her own, there’s one just like it on a demonstration table. PC, Mac, iPad, Android—whatever she owns, Farmers State Bank probably has one, too. “All on a table like in an Apple store,” says Duroe.

Hands-on experience—Rod Duroe (right) and Wes Becker, chief operating officer, demonstrate how to log into Farmers State Bank’s online banking system. Having devices “all on the table like in an Apple store,” in Duroe’s words, lets customers gain confidence in using online and mobile banking services.

“It makes a big difference,” Becker explains. “If they can log in on [equipment] they know, rather than just watching as we do it, they learn a lot more. Better to do it themselves, with us helping—which is why having multiple devices here is great.”
Older clients especially like the iPad for its ease of use, so half of Farmers State Bank branches now have demonstration iPads.

Tellers. Traditionally, banks feature a row of tellers along one wall. Farmers State’s lobby has a two-person “teller pod” with a cash recycler in the center. “The customers can actually stand right beside the teller if they wish,” says Becker. The lack of barriers adds a friendly vibe; cameras all around ensure transactions are secure.

Behind the tellers are the drive-up window and traditional offices for customer meetings.

After two years, what’s the verdict? “It’s made people happier to come into the branch. It’s cozy,” says Duroe. Families like the relaxation area. Customers appreciate the device island, and employees have become more versatile as well. Employees give the lobby a thumbs-up.

The furniture and tech devices were all bought new, but that was a minimal investment, both bankers say. There was plenty of space, so no problem there. Best of all, “as a smaller community bank moving into a larger, more urban area, we wanted to keep that original friendly feeling,” says Duroe. Since the move, Farmers State Bank has the largest market share of any bank in the county.

Something for employees, too

The Farmers State lobby isn’t the only notable spot in its flagship location. About half the employees are young people from the University of Northern Iowa, says CEO Rod Duroe. To keep the twentysomethings engaged, the second floor includes foosball and shuffleboard tables and workout equipment.

Ellen Ryan is a writer in Maryland.