Concept Could Be Sold To Other Banks; Membership Increased At First Use
February 25, 2020
Move over, docs in a box. A Pennsylvania credit union has patented a bank in a box. Customers and employees have reacted positively to the micro-branch and even mall developers have expressed interest in it.
“We wanted it to look like a piece of artwork,” said Rob Werner, president and CEO of Ardent Credit Union, based in Philadelphia.
At present Ardent is operating just one 240-square-foot “cube branch” inside the atrium of the GlaxoSmithKline consumer products division building in Collegeville. The cube is 10 feet tall, 14 feet wide, and 14 feet long, and is made out of plastic laminate and solid surface materials, with a steel and plywood substructure.
The cube has a video ATM in its center, a consultation office, and a teller line. It is staffed by two employees and can fit a few customers at a time. And the 13th largest credit union in the Keystone State has ambitious plans for its cube, which Werner said contains a great deal of valuable intellectual property. Hence the patent on the design.
With 35,000 members and more than $700 million in assets, Ardent operates eight branches, including the cube, in five Pennsylvania counties: Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks and Chester.
One of the drivers behind the development of the cube branch was the renovation of the GlaxoSmithKline building in Collegeville. Ardent was founded in 1977 by the employees of what was then SmithKline as a company-based credit union, but has since opened membership to the public in the counties where it operates.
The other impetus in developing the cube was Werner and Ardent chief operating officer Wade Bennett. After Werner joined the credit union in 2013, the two began thinking about alternatives to the typical brick-and-mortar branch model.
Meanwhile, GlaxoSmithKline wanted to move the existing Ardent branch out of a lower floor and into the building’s enormous atrium. But the company did not want to have to make any construction modifications to the atrium in order to accommodate the branch. That called for something that was pretty much self-contained.
The construction constraint was a true design poser, according to Stephen Beacham, principal director of design, interiors for the Washington, D.C. office of HOK. The global architectural design firm was working with GlaxoSmithKline on designs to modernize its offices.
HOK’s architects and designers began brainstorming with Werner and Bennett, all of them trying to come up with a cost-effective branch alternative that met technology needs while still offering customers personal interaction with branch employees.
HOK even assigned two staffers, senior designer Candace Todd and Shawn Brennan, project architect, to the task full time. Beacham, Bruce Arthur, senior project manager, and Todd Carll, project manager, rounded out the HOK team on the case.
Their “Eureka” moment arrived in 2016, when they realized that the foundation of what became the cube branch could be the same system of rails and overhead guides used in high density filing systems. These systems are designed to hold huge amounts of documents in a compressed space.
“Once you have the compressed filing system structure, you can build anything on it,” Beacham explained. As they had intended, they ended up with a self-contained unit that can be placed anywhere as a long as it can be hooked up to a power supply.
Beacham said the cube branch consists of several components. They include the tracks and the platform, a fixed arch to house ATM unit, and two sides that open and close with the touch of a button. It also contains a vault.
The cube has laminated and tempered glass at both ends to let in natural light from the atrium. The sides open like wings. One side is for the consultation office and the other provides the space for the teller line and the ATM. HOK worked with Ardent’s branding and graphics team to decorate the space in Ardent’s company colors and logo.
Because the first cube branch is located inside an access restricted environment, Werner said next-generation cube branches that sit in public spaces like a mall or unsecured office buildings will contain additional security features.
Werner said the current cube branch is staffed by two employees who can handle pretty much the same types of transactions as a regular or flagship branch. But the cube costs just a fraction of the roughly $2 million to $2.5 million needed to build a 2,000-square-foot flagship branch and even less than the $250,000 or more needed to retrofit a retail location.
The first month after the cube branch opened in September, it quadrupled the amount of new memberships over the number of new members typically added in that timeframe, Werner added.
As digital banking reduces the amount of in-person branch visits that customers make, Werner said the cube branch complements Ardent’s branch plan and gives the credit union a unique degree of flexibility to expand its footprint. The credit union plans to open three to five additional cube branches over the next couple of years.
Ardent also is looking to sell the cube concept to other companies. With margins continuing to shrink in Ardent’s core business, outside sales of cube branches could help maintain revenues while helping reduce the credit union’s own operating costs.
“How many of the community banks here believe their customer service is average or below average?”