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Banks Go After Hispanic Business

By Rachel Sams

November 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE TALLAHASSEE DEMOCRAT. All rights reserved. 

Financial institutions around the country and the Big Bend have a message for the Hispanic community, and they want to make sure it doesn't get lost in translation.

The message? "We want your business."

Banks and credit unions are reaching out to Latino customers in a number of ways, ranging from hiring Spanish-speaking employees to offering programs and services geared toward the Hispanic market. Those efforts are most visible in places such as South Florida, which has one of the largest Hispanic populations in the nation.

But those efforts also are taking place in North Florida, which has a growing Hispanic population made up of migrant workers, students and others from all over the world.

"We're just responding to a need," said James Saulter, interim banking center manager at Quincy's Bank of America. "We're wanting to make banking for everyone work in ways it never has before."

Bank of America is one of several banking chains around the country offering money-transfer services that allow customers to send money to friends or relatives in other countries. The bank is offering its SafeSend program - already popular in areas such as the Southwest - in smaller communities such as Quincy, where the tomato and nursery industries attract migrant workers each year.

The SafeSend program allows customers to allocate money to an ATM card that can be used by a friend or relative to retrieve money from ATMs in Mexico. Programs such as SafeSend position themselves as easier, cheaper alternatives to services such as Western Union and bank wire transfers.

Bank of America and SunTrust Bank are among the banking chains that have begun to accept the matricula consular, a national Mexican identification card, as a primary form of identification for opening a bank account.

Such programs and services will meet a need in North Florida's Hispanic community, said Maria Pouncey, migrant services coordinator for the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium. But Pouncey said the biggest need in the Spanish-speaking community is a bridge over the language barrier.

"Have at least one person that can talk to them," she said. For example, when Quincy State Bank responded to that need by hiring a couple of employees fluent in Spanish, Pouncey said, the bank "increased its business tremendously."

"We have tried to make it part of our emphasis to serve that part of our community," said Mark Lane, president of Quincy State Bank. He said the bank plans a billboard in Spanish with pictures of its Spanish-speaking employees.

John Medina, area president for First Union National Bank, said his presence illustrates the bank's commitment to reflect and respond to the diversity of the communities it serves. In addition to having a Hispanic man in the bank's top spot locally, First Union has six or seven employees in the Tallahassee market who speak fluent Spanish, he said.

Nationwide, First Union is developing a marketing campaign geared toward the Hispanic community. That means more than just translating the company's English advertisements into Spanish, said spokeswoman Mary Beth Navarro. "We're looking at the words from a cultural perspective, asking, is this message relevant to the Hispanic community?" she said.

The Federal Reserve Bank has estimated that as many as a fourth of the nation's Latinos don't have bank accounts. That population of potential customers is a powerful draw for banks.

How big is the Hispanic population locally? In Leon County, 3.5 percent of the population is of Hispanic or Latino origin, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Gadsden County's population was 6.2 percent Hispanic or Latino, the Census said. But some think those numbers, particularly for Gadsden County, may be higher.

Nearly 700 people received the matricula consular, the national Mexican ID card, when the Mexican Consulate visited Gadsden County twice this summer, said PACE's Pouncey. In addition to giving Mexican immigrants access to various services, the matricula allows Mexicans with permanent U.S. residency to cross the U.S.-Mexico border without having to pay a fee, Pouncey said.

Gadsden County's Latino population includes immigrants from a number of Central American countries - including El Salvador and Guatemala - as well as Mexico.

Many local financial institutions are adding Spanish-language options to ATM networks, telephone banking systems and Web sites. Some banks plan courses on topics such as homeownership and banking fundamentals for the Spanish-speaking community. PACE also offers information about banking and finances as part of its migrant education services.

"Often, the Hispanic population has never been banked before, and there quite naturally are some apprehensions," said David Ramsay, SunTrust Bank area board chairman, president and CEO. "Often that first step is one of a little hesitation and fear, and overcoming that is one of the biggest concerns we have."

Many of the programs and services banks are offering the Hispanic community are still getting off the ground in places such as North Florida. But the options for Hispanic customers will likely continue to increase as the demographics of the area and the nation evolve. SunTrust's Ramsay recalls walking into a Wal-Mart in Thomasville, Ga., recently and hearing shoppers all around him speaking Spanish.

"There's an increasing representation in this market of Hispanics," Ramsay said. "We see that market as a profitable market for us, quite frankly ... but we do that by delivering services to all different segments of the community."



Population of Hispanic or Latino origin:

United States: 12.5 percent

Florida: 16.8 percent

Leon County: 3.5 percent

Gadsden County: 6.2 percent

Source: 2000 U.S. Census

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