A cashless branch? Minnesota’s Bremer says “yes”

Sarah Kinkeade (left) and Elizabeth Weekly are eager to talk about Bremer Bank to whomever happens to pop into the Linden Hills branch.

The sign above the door clearly communicates you are about to enter a bank, yet the printing on the front door to Bremer Bank’s southwest Minneapolis branch reads, “no cash on premises.” Cue the cognitive dissonance.

Once inside, all the visuals contradict your understanding of “bank.” There’s no place to queue up to make a deposit because there aren’t tellers. There isn’t an ATM in sight. How about a safe somewhere in back? Nope. There isn’t even a pamphlet rack where one might pick up a trifold on “Making the Most of Your Home’s Equity.”

Bremer opened its office in the historic Linden Hills neighborhood in October 2017 as an experiment, said Sarah Kinkeade, vice president and premier banker, one of two regulars who staff the office. Bankers don’t really need an office, Kinkeade purports as she leans against a granite counter. “That freaks people out,” she said.

Another sign on the front door indicates banking services are made by appointment, but Kinkeade and colleague, Elizabeth Weekly, typically work onsite during weekday hours; when they are in, the doors are unlocked and customers and non-customers alike are welcomed in for a chat, offered a mug of coffee, and are free to relax or work at one of the tables the bank makes available without charge. The space, all or in part, is booked by community groups approximately 40 hours per week. After-hours users get a one-time access code and usage rules akin to what one might expect when renting an Airbnb or VRBO. Anyone can reserve the space. Even you.

On Wednesdays, Kinkeade and Weekly host [email protected] from 9 a.m. to noon, an open invitation to check out the “bank” and visit with neighbors and nearby business people. Snacks are put out.

When someone new stops in, Kinkeade said she never introduces herself as a banker. “My only goal is to insure by the time they leave, they know who Bremer is.” It’s a “relationships first” approach.

“Some people come in and wonder, ‘what did I walk into?’” Kinkeade laughed.

What they wander into is a bright and tidy 2,500-square-foot corporate gathering space with low-top tables, a counter bar with stools, a large and a small conference room, and one private office, all of it available to the public by reservation. The private spaces are separated from the open-concept gathering space by a partial wall covered in live moss with added privacy gained from switchable smart-glass enclosures. Shelves above the service counter are a showcase for 20th century banking artifacts pulled from the basement of a Menominee, Wis., bank that Bremer acquired some 20 years ago. The storeroom in back is akin to a pantry: No copy paper or No. 10 envelopes but plenty of frilly toothpicks and plastic wine cups for bank-sponsored gatherings.

Kinkeade and Weekly decorated the space themselves. Both came to Bremer from Anchor Bank after its acquisition by Evanston, Ind.-based Old National. Both like the aesthetics of the space. “Traditional branches feel simultaneously cold and stuffy,” Kinkeade said as Weekly nodded. They think of the workspace as more like a living room. “Who wouldn’t want to work here?” Kinkeade asked. Members of Bremer’s remote workforce pop in for periodic facetime.

Since this is the first Bremer branch in the neighborhood, Kinkeade said, there wasn’t a sense among customers that traditional banking functions were absent or had been taken away. Customers who come in wanting to deposit a check are given hands-on instruction on downloading and utilizing the bank’s mobile banking app. Customers in need of ATM services are given a list of nearby options, including ones in the surcharge-free MoneyPass network. Customers can open accounts and apply for loans; Kinkeade and Weekly perform these tasks using their secure, company-issued Surface Pro, which is meant to be carried with them throughout the space at all times.  

“We knew the demographics of this neighborhood…there is a lot of wealth here,” Kinkeade said. The office operates under the company’s Wealth Management Strategy, but Kindeade considers herself more of a hybrid consumer lender. Her approach to banking is to “lead by the desire to give back,” she said.

Kinkeade and Weekly have built connections with the Linden Hills Business Association and Neighborhood Council, which has resulted in growing interest in utilizing the space, more inquiries about the bank, and a slight uptick in commercial customers — 13 added in 2018; another six added in the first three months of 2019. Those are the metrics the bank is looking at as it assesses the office’s performance. Kinkeade creates the narrative that explains how the space is being utilized and how their face-to-face interactions are resulting in increased interest in Bremer becoming a banking partner, she said.

It’s very different from having sales goals and both bankers are keenly aware that the entire operation remains an experiment. “We are creating the baseline,” Kinkeade said.