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The Bradenton Herald

Catering To Hispanics Makes Banks More Relevant To Manatee's Population


September 28, 2003
Copyright ©2003 The Bradenton Herald. All rights reserved.

BRADENTON -- Friday is pay day for Fernando Benavides, and it's the day he makes his usual rounds at the bank to cash his paycheck.

Mexican-born Benavides, who works in furniture manufacturing, moved to Bradenton nine years ago and said visiting the bank to cash his weekly paycheck is a good way to prepare for weekend tasks such as shopping or paying bills.

Not all Hispanics, however, share Benavides' point of view. The English language remains a barrier to many monolingual Hispanics or Latinos, and when the foreign language is mixed with banking jargon and technicalities, trust in the financial world is less than strong.

Benavides, who doesn't speak English, overcame the language barrier and opened an account at SunTrust Bank, one of many banks now offering services, such as bilingual tellers and ATMs, to target the Spanish-speaking community.

Santiago Reyes, who like Benavides speaks very limited English and also banks at SunTrust, said being able to speak Spanish with bank employees has made service much better.

"It makes doing business with them 100 percent better because it allows us to build a more trusting relationship, and that's necessary," Honduran-born Reyes said. "There's better communication."

Financial institutions like AmSouth, Bank of America, SunTrust, Provident Bank and Wachovia are using bilingual services to draw the increasing Hispanic population.

Fermin "J.J." Miranda, business banking team leader at the AmSouth Bank along Stickney Point Road in Sarasota, said speaking in Spanish with customers is beneficial because it helps culturally strengthen relationships with clients.

"It binds the culture between us together," said Miranda, who was born in Puerto Rico. "We need to make our customers feel comfortable."

New census figures released this month indicate that the U.S. Hispanic population increased by 13.4 percent between April 2000 and July 2002, bringing the number of Hispanics living in the United States up to 38.8 million. The total U.S. population stands at a little more than 292 million.

AmSouth City President Danny Morgan, who oversees branches in Lee, Charlotte, Sarasota and Manatee counties, said courting the growing Hispanic community has increased business growth.

"We certainly recognize the Hispanic market as a very rapidly growing portion of our market, and we would like to capture that," said Morgan. "We're aggressively trying to recruit Spanish-speaking employees to fill expansion branches in Manatee County, and we'll be looking for Hispanics to fill those positions."

James Pappas, a LYKES professor of banking and finance at the University of South Florida, said programs that target minority groups have become popular in recent years.

"It is becoming quite popular for banks nationwide to carve out marketing programs that are of interest to particular ethnic groups, and it has been extremely effective," he said. "It really is a matter of understanding the culture and the need to develop a higher perception of understanding between the bank and the ethnic group, and ensuring they have appropriate representatives of that group."

Celia Szelwach, a Bradenton business consultant, said if banks want to target Hispanics, they need to understand the culture's emphasis on building relationships. For Szelwach, who is a Mexican-American, reaching out to Hispanics goes beyond providing a bilingual ATM.

"When I go into a bank, I don't see anything that looks different," she said. "I really don't see that banks have pushed heavily targeting Hispanics in this community. Hispanics generally do business with people who understand them. Maybe on the surface there's progress being made, but almost everybody is in catch-up mode."

Census figures indicate 11.3 percent of Bradenton's population is Hispanic. Of 49,500 Bradenton residents, more than 5,500 are Hispanic.

Some Hispanics, however, would rather stay outside the banking loop.

George Metcalf, vice president of Provident Bank, said for many Hispanics who have recently moved to the United States, fear of banking stems from the instability in their native country's banking system, which may not secure funds if a bank closes.

"They're misinformed," said Venezuelan-born Metcalf, who was raised in California and worked there for 15 years before joining Provident Bank in 2001. "In the United States, your funds are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for up to $100,000. I think the key is to educate the Hispanic community about banking services."

One way that banks like Provident have gone about educating Hispanic customers has been by increasing the number of bilingual tellers available to assist customers at their different branches.

"We do a lot of lobby management here, and I'm out on the lobby when a lot of customers are here," said Sylvia Varde, who is bilingual and has been branch manager of the SunTrust along 14th Street West.

Bienvenida Sanchez, who lives in Sarasota and has seen the Hispanic community grow over the past nine years since she moved here from her native Puerto Rico, said accessibility is important.

"Many Hispanics don't realize how important credit is; if you don't have a line of credit in this country you have nothing," she said. "There are a lot of things we are unaware of. There are a lot of people who don't know how to orient the Hispanic consumer; that's what there needs to be more of."

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