Bankers serve non-English speaking customers in rural Minnesota

Minnesota State Roundup

Published April 1, 1995  | April 1995 issue

English isn't the only language spoken in the lobbies of two rural banks in southwest Minnesota.

In response to a growing number of non-English speaking residents in Willmar and Marshall, bankers have hired bilingual employees, tailored banking services and educated staff on fair lending issues.

Norwest Bank in Marshall, a town of 13,000, has adapted its services to accommodate some of the almost 500 Hispanic, Hmong and Somali residents who have traditionally relied on cash. "We are helping some people who haven't been exposed to some standard bank products," says president Stan Finnestad.

At the bank, customers can use their own language through interpreters, including two bilingual staff members; at home they can call an 800 number that connects them with a translator. "We have brochures printed in Spanish and Hmong," Finnestad says.

Bank products are also adapting to the needs of these new customers. In Willmar, where over 1,000 of 18,000 residents are Hispanic, Heritage Bank is preparing for an impending housing crunch, says Duaine Amundson, vice president of real estate. The closing of a trailer park in July means about 500 people, many Hispanic, will look for home loans.

Through community education programs and bilingual brochures, Hispanic customers in Willmar are using the bank more and relying less on cash. "We encourage them to use checking accounts," Amundson says. "We also do a fair number of car loans."

Courses on ethnic diversity are standard for employees at Norwest and Heritage. "It's hard to fathom the various cultural backgrounds, values and perspectives," Finnestad says. "[The courses] have helped my staff become exposed to these issues."

Heritage president Gary Geiger tested his staff with help from a local college by having mock customers of different ethnic groups seek services at the bank. Finding the test a success, "we utilized it to let our officers know we are servicing our community well," Geiger says.

Rob Grunewald