By Heidi Schwartz
Published in the April 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
Associated with the wealth of the early cattle ranching industry, the glamour of Hollywood in its heyday, and the tech boom of today, Southern California has a reputation as famous (or infamous) as its traffic jams and theme parks. Built around a culture that thrives on change, this part of the country is a place where growth has been just as much a part of the climate as abundant sunshine and plentiful Pacific breezes.
Back in 1892, the founder of one financial institution had the insight to recognize the potential of the region—particularly the agricultural attributes—and put down roots 30 miles east of Los Angeles in the Pomona Valley. In a move reminiscent of the Hollywood classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Charles Irving Lorbeer (publisher of Pomona’s local paper) and a group of backers opened the doors of the Mutual Building and Loan on Christmas Eve, 1892. The organization has operated continuously ever since, despite several economic depressions, two World Wars, and other difficult times.
Eventually becoming PFF Bank & Trust in 1996, the firm has continued to add services and build branches at a steady rate. But explosive growth in the Inland Empire region (described as one of the fastest growing areas in the country), has sparked an aggressive campaign by PFF to upgrade old branches while building new—at a mind boggling rate of four to six renovations and three to five new branches per year.
From Unique To Uniform
Dale Blumenthal, IIDA, CID, and owner of DesignWorkPlace, Inc., became involved with PFF back in 1979 when he was a young designer on staff with a firm specializing in banks. He recalls, “When I started in the late 70s, we would create an image for a specific location. We’d do a mural or introduce other elements that would define the image of the community, and it would take 18 months to develop each branch.”
Nearly 30 branches and almost as many years later, PFF’s design emphasis has shifted dramatically. With a total of 350,000+ square feet and the previously stated timeline of three to five new branch completions per year, Robert Rice, PFF’s director of facilities says, “Instead of a location specific image, we are now creating a consistent corporate presentation, yet still retaining our core values as a community bank.”
To support the growth in the region, PFF’s customer base is now much more mobile, allowing it to spread over a larger area. Additionally, the company is looking to move into new markets that may not necessarily be familiar with its reputation and services. “We wanted to make sure that our customers would recognize us from one location to the next. We also needed to make sure that what we were building would not be started from scratch each time,” Rice says.
On board with PFF since 1994, Rice is fully aware that “banking has changed significantly over the past several years, particularly on the customer service side, which is much more retail oriented these days. We needed to make our facilities flexible enough to support the wide variety of financial services we provide to our customers as well as accommodate changing legal and technology issues.”
High Tech Protection
Recent banking regulations have dictated modifications in customer relations. Specifically, increased levels of confidentiality are a primary concern. This was historically a factor to some degree in all PFF facilities, “but it wasn’t as recognized in the branch operation itself,” Rice explains. “Now we have to work harder to protect conversations and keep them private. That not only went into the design of the customer area, but also into where our data files, file servers, and computer rooms would be located. These are all important security issues.”
In financial facilities, there are numerous security concerns. While tricky to achieve, the public/private balance is understandable, according to Blumenthal. “The public has to be able to get to certain areas (safe deposit boxes, for instance), so you have to make sure you’re incorporating into those areas a balance of customer access and security.”
To enhance security in certain locations, controlled access booths are being installed at public entrances. These devices serve as metal detectors that permit entry by one person at a time into the building. With the safety of customers and employees as a primary concern, this approach is a successful crime deterrent.
Rice says, “When we put controlled access booths in certain branches, armed robberies don’t happen. In terms of space, they do take approximately 6′ or a bit more in the entryway, and they do take a little time for the customers to get used to, but people appreciate the fact that the bad guy is generally not going to come in.
“We’ve added cameras to help with that as well,” Rice says. There are now more cameras in a branch than when he first joined the company. “In those days, we had, on average, eight cameras; now we have somewhere close to 24. We have a camera on every work station and wherever cash is handled. There are ATM cameras to record activity at the machines. If there is an issue, at least there’s some record.”
Low Tech Touches
With heightened electronic surveillance, sight lines are an important factor at PFF’s new branches. So too is the emphasis on structural stability, considering the company’s proximity to the San Andreas Fault.
Rice explains, “We do structurally look at our buildings and require that they meet or exceed the minimum zone code they’re in—plus a little bit more. There are several of buildings that, if there is an earthquake, I want to be there! Some of our buildings have been around for a long time, and they’ve survived some pretty hefty poundings,” he says with a slight chuckle.
Safe and secure, PFF’s branches will offer sophisticated services in a down-to-earth package. Blumenthal explains, “Clients and customers respond in a positive way when something looks nice and appears as though we spent a good deal of money, yet stayed within a conservative budget. By using different colors, finishes, and quality products, PFF conveys the message that it is a permanent fixture in the community. I have personally remodeled every one of the branches over the years, so I know the original materials are that good. Everything is built to last.”
While permanence is important, PFF’s prototype also offers the ultimate flexibility, as requested by Rice. In the past, PFF had created teller lines out of permanent materials like custom millwork and marble countertops. While these materials were impressive and beautiful, they could not meet the bank’s changing customer service demands.
In the older branches, “we found some of the materials weren’t available anymore, so we couldn’t replicate some of those effects,” says Rice. “Or to do it and match what was existing would be cost prohibitive,” he adds.
This quandary led Rice to explore systems furniture as an option. Blumenthal says, “Marrying the power and data delivery columns with the systems furniture in the recently opened data operations center was Robert’s idea, since it came in at a lower cost than drywall and refurbished systems furniture.”
Rice is sold on systems furniture for all PFF branch projects; so much so that he incorporated some of the same elements at the company’s data operations center and will soon be using it in the new corporate headquarters that Blumenthal designed. This kind of insight will clearly help the company build on its sturdy, yet flexible foundation dating back to 1892.