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When banks start opening ‘stores’ instead of ‘branches’, it’s a sure sign they are ditching 19th-century tradition for 21st-century design. And, in the process, transforming how we bank.

Umpqua Bank, a small local chain in America’s Pacific Northwest, was an unlikely pacesetter for a design-led revolution. But the Oregon company has inspired ‘me too’ rebranding throughout banking.

Founded in 1953 to provide banking to lumberjacks, Umpqua had by 1994 become a trusted, modestly successful chain of six community branches, with assets of £74.3m. When long-time president Ron Culberston retired that year, the board was unsure whether to sell up or appoint fresh blood.

Taking a risk, Umpqua appointed consultant Ray Davis as president, with the remit to introduce wholesale change to create shareholder value. To differentiate Umpqua, Davis focused on making its delivery unique. By conceptualising financial services as products, Davis asked himself: “How do you sell products well?” Answer: by being a service-driven retailer. This meant looking to the likes of Starbucks and Ritz-Carlton, not US Bank, for inspiration.

Umpqua’s vice president of creative strategies, Lani Hayward, puts it simply: “We had to give customers a reason to drive past two or three other banks to get to us.” Umpqua’s ‘store’ concept was born and put into practice in 1995 with a brand new £2.1m bank in Roseburg, a town of 20,000 people that had become the company’s home.

Working with retail consultancy, Umpqua designed a new space and customer experience. “Our store model created an open invitation for customers to browse displays, have a cup of coffee, read the papers and check their email. We evolved into a community centre as much as a bank,” says Hayward. The self-effacing slogan used to launch the store, ‘Pretty cool for a bank’, was well earned.

After three years the Roseburg store went from third to first in market share, moving over £53m of deposits.

Integrating design thinking into its business has driven Umpqua’s growth. The bank’s greatest asset is its innovative culture but, says Davis, “Without the design, it wouldn’t work.”