Thursday, 29 September 2011

Resignation of Deanna Oppenheimer - the end of an era for branch banking?

The announcement of the resignation of Deanna Oppenheimer as Head of UK & European Retail Banking at Barclays marks the end of an era for branch banking much as the end of shoulder pads marked the end of the Thatcher era.

Deanna Oppenheimer, ably supported by her husband, John, with his background in hospitality, fundamentally changed the world's view of what a bank branch should look like. It was Washington Mutual where the first bank branches with coffee shops inside (Starbuck's) and play areas for children were seen. It was these branches where the screens came down, the decor brightened, the lighting changed and the desks went from rectangular to free form.  It was at Wamu where branches became 'stores' and the experience of visiting the bank became pleasurable rather than a chore. Wamu became unique for a bank in winning retailing awards. In 2003 US Banker recognised Deanna as one of the top 5 most powerful women in banking. Many banks tried to copy the Wamu 'Occasio' concept design, including Abbey National (prior to being taken over by Santander) with its Costa Coffee tie-up, but none managed to match it.

Deanna was hired by Barclays to re-create that Wamu effect with the UK retail bank and has, to a very large extent, achieved that. However the bank customer has moved on from that and so Deanna bowing out now makes a lot of sense.

The era is coming to an end because customers have changed what it is they want from a bank. Almost since banking was invented the branch has been the most powerful channel for banking. This is where the investment funds have been focussed on. Where the money was came the power. Whoever was in charge of the branches was the most powerful person in the retail bank. However with a decline in the use of the branches, whatever Metro Bank might say, the power and the investment is moving away from the banch network and the branch-focussed directors and mangers are losing their influence and ability to drive the direction of retail banking. No longer does it make sense to invest millions of pounds and dollars in having the smartest and coolest branches - often a case of style over substance. There is a recognition now that the investment needs to be in the substance - providing a far better customer experience whether it is digital, contact centre or face-to-face, and recognising that increasingly the physical experience is far less important than it used to be.

Deanna Oppenheimer is just the last of the branch-centric powerful  female retail bankers to leave the UK industry. Over the last year the UK retail banking industry has seen Helen Weir (Lloyds Banking Group), Lynne Peacock (National Australia and formerly The Woolwich) and Joy Griffiths (Lloyds Banking Group, Wells Fargo and Westpac) all depart.  On top of this, with the sad premature death of  Terri Diall, formerly head of the Retail Bank at  Wells Fargo, Lloyds TSB (where she changed 'branches' to 'stores') and subsequently Citibank, it really is the end of that era.

Emerging to replace these phenomenal women are a cadre of women, and men, who really understand what it is to serve customers digitally. They will become the Deanna Oppenheimers of the digital banking world.

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