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A Wahoo to WaMu

Leaving Las Vegas is always a bitter pill.  On the one hand, you’re leaving behind all the bright lights, shows, drinks, girls … you name it – what goes on in Vegas, stays in Vegas … on the other, my pocket is a few thousand dollars lighter and so it’s nice to escape before bankruptcy or Chapter 11 or whatever it is occurs.

The BAI Retail Delivery show has been top heavy with big hitters: Geldof, Greenspan and Forbes; and the message seems to be one where America’s cup is either half-full or half-empty.

The half-full would say that America’s just going through a minor market hiccup.  What’s interesting there is that it used to be that when America sneezed, the world got flu.  Now, if America sneezes, it’s just Europe that gets the Lemsip, for the half-empty glass watchers are saying that China, India and the BRIC economies are fast rising and America is no longer the resilient currency.  That’s why the dollar is weak and the subprime is being offset by Europe and not Asia.  Asia is meantime investing in the next BRIC economy: Africa.

Whether your cup is half-full or half-empty, my real highlight of the week was visiting one of Washington Mutual’s, now called WaMu for short, Occasio branches.  These are branches that were launched in the early 2000’s with a completely new model of branch banking based upon open counters, bright lights and welcoming branding, children’s playrooms and happy staff.  And it works.

On Friday morning, twenty Europeans and International attendees bowled down to one of these branches and the first thing that strikes you is how bright and welcoming they are.  No tellers.  No windows.  No queues.  No dim lights and grey people.  It’s all smiles.  That’s WaMu’s slogan by the way: "simpler banking, more smiles".

The culture of smiles is inspired by the bank’s CEO and Chairman, Kerry Killinger, who also happened to be a keynote at this year’s BAI Show.

Now Kerry has been at the helm of WaMu for seventeen years, and has grown the bank to be the sixth largest in America.  It’s culture is very much his culture.  Irreverent, fun and different.  That’s WaMu.

A culture founded on core values that are based around being fair, caring, human, dynamic and driven.  These values shine through the WaMu culture from their head office in Seattle, which I’ve visited and enjoyed (watch out for the golden pig at the entrance – long story), through their branches such as the Las Vegas Occasio branch we visited last Friday.

An example of Kerry’s style is that he introduced the Wahoo a couple of years ago.  This is to show that you appreciate a fellow worker’s efforts, which may sound cheesy but do remember that most people leave firms because they feel unappreciated. 

The Wahoo, or WaMu Wahoo to give it the proper vernacular, is an electronic appreciation card that employees send to each other to recognise each other’s work.  Managers can join in too, and can include gift cards or other value and gift tokens if appropriate.   In less than two years, 140,000 ecards have been sent between staff and, according to internal measures, each person receiving one is half as likely to leave WaMu as the general population, so it works.  Cheesy or not.

Another key aspect of WaMu is being innovative and, as Kerry says, "some people look at business and say: ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.  I prefer Henry Ford’s approach when he said: ‘If I‘d asked people what they wanted, they’d have asked for faster horses’."

As a result, Kerry’s always looking for innovation and he defines innovation as a three pronged approach: research, risk-taking and culture.   He shorthands this to being the brain, guts and heart of innovation where research is the brain, risk shows if you have the guts and culture demonstrates whether you have the heart for innovation.

Personally, I like their style.  Quirky and different, funny and irreverent, welcoming and easy.  That’s WaMu.

Funny enough, one of the guys who visited their branch last Friday said, "well of course, it’s easier over here in America as they have so much space to do this".  My comment would be that it’s nothing to do with space.  It’s to do with culture.  And it’s far harder to copy a culture than a product, programme, technology or system.  That’s why banks should focus upon differentiating cultures first.

About Chris M Skinner

Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal’s Financial News. To learn more click here...

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