What if the biggest bank in America spent millions on new offices, staff, and marketing but couldn’t sign up all the resulting customers in a timely, digital, 2019-friendly manner?
Steve Ramm, a Philadelphia CPA, is also treasurer of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, a national music and talk preservation society with a cool mission that is looking for a bank to help manage the association’s funds.
“We hold a conference each year and the registrar deposits the checks received and I withdraw the funds to pay the bills. Until this year we used Bank of America because they had branches in the cities that the registrars lived in” — such places as Pittsburgh, and Portland, Ore., where BofA, once the nation’s largest bank, still has offices.
But the current registrar lives in Bloomington, Ind., a college town where BofA, which has closed 1,500 branches in the last 10 years, has no outpost. There is, in that college-town corner of Hoosier-land, Ramm reports, “only one national bank -- Chase,” the retail arm of JPMorgan, Chase & Co., now the largest U.S. bank by assets, sales and profits -- and the only big bank still adding a lot of branches.
Ramm was happy to learn, as noted in this newspaper, that Chase is also opening branches in Philadelphia. Last week, Ramm stopped by the little new Chase office at the corner of 17th and Walnut, in the city’s wealthy Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, to, as he put it, “open a large-business account” accessible to treasurer and registrar alike.
He was greeted by a staffer “who said I would have to wait 45 minutes to meet a banker” — one of just two busy staffers authorized to open accounts.
What’s a better time? Ramm asked: 9 a.m., he was told — after that it’s wait, wait, wait all day. If that’s an inconvenient hour, maybe come back a month from now, the staffer suggested. Or try the next-closest Chase branch, near the Rutgers University’s campus in Camden.
Ramm tried phoning the branch, and got a recording: “We are serving other customers, please call back another time.” He tried the bank’s national customer service. "I found I could not open a business account online or on phone,” he said in contrast with past banks that the association has used. He urged me to check it out.
So I walked to the branch’s grand opening on Monday. I just missed those special guests from City Hall -- Mayor Jim Kenney, his economic development chief Harold Epps and city councilman Kenyatta Johnson. Still, there were plenty of smiling Chase people standing about in clean threads, a box of doughnuts, and not a lot of customers. Assuming they weren’t just suit models, I messaged Ramm, he might find someone to help if he could get over there before they dispersed.
Meantime, I asked the Chase people, why the delay? And with all Chase’s vaunted financial-tech software engineering, why can’t you open a business account online?
To my surprise they acknowledged these problems. Michele Lawrence, new head of Chase’s Philly region, blamed “extremely high volume. An influx of customers. The floodgates are opened. We are setting appointments,” she said.
Online banking needs to be secure, she added, and Chase is still improving its national system. We’ll get there, said Jodi Dayborn, Lawrence’s regional marketing chief.
But Chase, with more than 5,000 branches, surely knows how to staff for success, I suggested. Vernon Hill used to flood the zone when his old Commerce Bank (and, lately, his Metro Bank UK and Republic Bank of Philadelphia) opened new branches, with plenty of extra staff on hand to open new accounts while prospects were still flush and happy from his banks' free hot dogs, pens and doggie bowls. (To be sure, both Metro and Republic shares have fallen in recent days on weak earnings reports.)
Chase does plan to upgrade its online business banking, Lawrence promised. No timetable.
From the bank’s point of view, a rush of surplus customers is not the worst problem to have. One Chase person suggested the rush will ease a bit when Chase opens its next Center City branch at 1700 JFK Boulevard. But another staffer pointed out that opening has been delayed, from this spring until late summer.
The bank hopes to have at least 16 branches around the region by the end of the year, and hire 300 branch employees, starting at $16.50 an hour, spokeswoman Ashlei Bobo told me later. Chase is “really just getting started” in our “neck of the woods.”
I ran all this by Ramm, who says he’s going to have to try Chase again, given the lack of nationwide alternatives.