ChoiceOne honored for innovative outreach to migrant workers

Michigan’s ChoiceOne Bank was named an ICBA 2017 National Community Bank Service Award winner for providing financial services for Spanish-speaking workers.

Employees of ChoiceOne Bank, Sparta, Mich., attend a nine-week immersive Spanish class in order to better serve Spanish-speaking customers.
Employees of ChoiceOne Bank, Sparta, Mich., attend a nine-week conversational Spanish class in order to better serve Spanish-speaking customers.

Michigan’s ChoiceOne Bank was named a 2017 National Community Bank Service Award winner for its work in helping provide secure access to financial services for Spanish-speaking workers in its community.

The award, given by the Independent Community Bankers of America, celebrates “the outstanding and innovative volunteer efforts of the nation’s community banks.”  ICBA selected two national winners and one grand national winner from more than 100 nominations.

“While we received many impressive nominations from community banks that supported underserved communities and customers, including the elderly and financially disadvantaged, ChoiceOne took their efforts in a different direction by immersing themselves into their community through language and education,” said Aleis Stokes, senior vice president of media and public relations at ICBA. “Their efforts to learn more about members of their community and serve them better highlight their commitment to their customers, local small businesses and neighbors.”

The $614 million ChoiceOne is based in a large agricultural community specializing in apples, peaches, blueberries and asparagus, crops that require a lot of people for harvesting.

Each year, farmers or contractors hire thousands of migrant workers to help with harvest. Many of these employees are H-2A visa workers from Mexico or South America and lack access to U.S.-based banks and instead use higher-cost check cashing facilities. It also means workers end up carrying a lot of cash at the end of the season, increasing their risk of being robbed. Workers returning home from the area after harvest last year were robbed at gunpoint after their bus crossed the southern U.S. border.

Sparta-based ChoiceOne’s “grower committee,” a group of employees that works with the bank’s ag customers, has been focusing on ways to help serve farmers and employees for the last four years, according to Adom Greenland, chief operating officer for the bank. About 20 percent of the bank’s base is in ag.

It began with a group of 20 ChoiceOne employees enrolling in a nine-week course for conversational Spanish. Then the bank began hiring more bilingual employees, including a mortgage loan officer and two call center employees. Now, it tries to have at least one Spanish-speaking employee at each of its 12 branches. Employees suggested further improvements in offering financial services to migrant workers as well as permanent Spanish-speaking residents. Conversations with local farmers and contractors created more ideas.

The rest of the program grew from there during the last 12-18 months, Greenland said. “It’s the bank getting better customer service to those who speak Spanish.”

Kelly Potes
Kelly Potes

In 2016, the bank hosted its first account opening night for the migrant workers. “The issue with seasonal workers, they’re working quite a bit, and then on their free time they’re going to the bank, grocery store, post office,” said Kelly Potes, bank president and CEO.  “Some of these people don’t even have vehicles; [they’re] taken around by bus.” So a nighttime account opening “party” made sense.

“We streamlined our process to open accounts for folks that are eligible,” Greenland said. For those who are eligible, the bank can open accounts and get workers set up with debit cards. “For those not eligible, we’ve made an arrangement with a partner of ours for employers to issue a paycard to those folks, reloadable Visas.”

“We have negotiated on our customers’ behalf very favorable fees for our farmers and their employees, Greenland said. “We spent a good eight months interviewing and vetting paycard partners until we found one that I would feel comfortable sending my family to.”

The bank also worked to get the farmers on direct deposit for their employees, saving them a lot of time on writing checks weekly, sometimes for up to 300 employees. Then there’s the time-savings of not having a busload of workers come in at the same time to cash checks at the bank.

The program is in its early stages, but Greenland calls it a success. To date, about 100 accounts have been opened, and another 500 people have gotten the paycards. “I expect these numbers to be exponentially larger as we go on,” he said. “We’ve had farmers in our community move to the bank because of how aggressive we’re thinking about their employees

And it’s been a bank-wide effort with employees asking for ways to better serve the community. Customer service and retail staff have stepped up to pitch in, making an impressive effort, Greenland said.

“This wasn’t just the president and COO doing this project,” he added. “That has been really good to see from Kelly and my standpoint, leadership in our bank at multiple levels.”

“I think it’s drawn us closer to our clients, both the farmer and the employees,” Potes said. “It’s gotten us to interact more which has been very good. It’s gotten our employees to think outside the box, ‘What can we do? How can we do better banking for our clients?’”

“[The program] really sets us up to be the bank of choice of agricultural and local Spanish population as well. We’re really proud of it and proud of our folks,” Greenland said.

They’re not alone in their estimation of the program’s value. One of the ICBA award judges wrote of ChoiceOne’s program, “This is an excellent example of a community bank using its expertise to resolve an identifiable problem and serve more people.”