Photo by Peggy Sturdivant
Alex Miller, Candace Cothran and Mitch Kuns at Umpqua’s Ballard store.

At Large in Ballard: Will Umpqua say I do?

The Umpqua Bank that opened on NW Market St last December has been on my “future column” list since I learned they hosted a Salsa dance and a poetry reading. My general interest is always piqued by what seems like unlikely partnerships. I wanted to see if their purported non-traditional approach to banking went any deeper than marketing ploy.

My visit to Umpqua Bank began in a straightforward fashion, though not every bank immediately offers you their own blend of coffee (or tea). The gentlemen behind the counter resembled tellers, albeit in what they call a “store” versus a bank. On departing an hour later I presented an idea for what could truly set them apart in the banking world, and perhaps even fill a community need.

I met Candace Cothran at a Ballard Chamber meeting a few weeks back. Her nametag read Store Manager. I thanked her for the burlap sack of scented pine cones left on Ballard doorsteps before the holidays last year and said I’d been intrigued by their hosting a poetry reading last April. “Have you been in?” she asked. “We need to get you in.”

Once in I looked around the location that used to house Radio Shack. I saw: a community board with pushpins as well as an electronic monitor for announcements, the aforementioned coffee and tea (the coffee beans also available for purchase), a shiny old-style telephone that connects you directly to the CEO of the company, public computers with chairs, a printer, comfy chairs with a reading light, a retail display featuring a local merchant, lobby ATMs, two wall-sized murals and an art gallery in the space that connects the rear of the bank with its little-known four parking places shared with Nielsen Bros. Carpets.

Cothran and I went into one of three offices. We covered facts. Umpqua is based out of Oregon, its headquarters are in Roseburg. They have 193 stores, with ten in the Seattle area. The Ballard store is the only one participating in its neighborhood ArtWalk, but all locations try to participate in very local and neighborly functions.
Their tagline is “World’s Greatest Bank.” Cothran told me, “We want to be a neighbor instead of a bank.”

Cothran presented very professionally but I sensed an edgy humor to be tapped. She’s been with Umpqua for six years and moved to Seattle from Portland in order to manage the Ballard location, which opened on Dec. 19, 2011. Per Cothran, they have had good response, although “kind of slow.” There has been an open invitation for people to come in for the coffee, the paper and computer access, whether or not they are customers. Of course they hope those people decide to bank at Umpqua. “We’re a full-service bank,” Cothran told me. “The difference is that we’re also the neighbor who is going to host events and help you if something goes wrong.”

Noticing my eye on business cards for “Universal Associates,” Cothran explained that her fellow employees are so named because, “They are empowered to help a client with any need, from start to finish.”

Which is when I decided that if Umpqua really wants to be more than a bank, or the most unusual bank ever, they should start performing marriages. Clearly I was free-associating the business card title with Universal Life Church, but still “empowered to help with any need …” What says merger or joint checking accounts like marriage?

We talked about Cothran’s two Labrador Retrievers, one a Golden and one a Chocolate, and her ten years as a photographer and manager for Yuen Lui Studios. “I would never even go to another bank,” she said, not only about her career, but also about her own banking. Then, looking pretty far down the road for someone so young, she said, “I see myself retiring from Umpqua.”

In perhaps a partial nod to her photographer past, Cothran was planning a photo booth for Halloween. But it was in discussing the poetry reading held during business hours that she became most animated. It had reawakened her childhood love of poetry and she wants the store to host more readings.

We brainstormed merging poetry readings with Ballard Chamber’s ArtWalk, of which she is on the committee. She showed me the back gallery space that hosts a new artist monthly. In the front space they feature local merchants quarterly (currently La Tienda); the goods on display can be purchased at the bank, with proceeds returning in full to the merchant.

As is often the case with someone used to being on the other side of the camera, Cothran avoided my lens, offering her Universal Associates for sacrifice instead. Once I had them all positioned in front of a mural I gave them my own marketing pitch.

“There used to be a wedding chapel in a store in Fremont,” I began. “If you really want to offer a full-service bank, I think Universal Associates should also perform marriages.” Said Associates Alex Miller and Mitch Kuns looked a dubious but I could see Cothran considering the idea. “Imagine being the first, maybe the only bank with a wedding chapel. You’ve got the space.”

So I’ve been on the inside and from appearances Umpqua does different. They’ve hosted Salsa, Dog Training, business seminars and offer the Internet Café, art gallery, employee volunteer program and cookies from Larsen’s Bakery on Fridays. Intriguing, but I will be really convinced they’re the “World’s Greatest Bank” when helping clients “from start to finish” also includes the ultimate bank merger.

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