March 27, 2023

Terri Bell has seen dozens of people, many of whom had lost everything, line up outside Regions Financial’s portable branch, in the wake of Hurricane Michael in 2018. She has listened to a customer recount watching her husband succumb to the floodwaters that ravaged Waverly, Tennessee, in 2021 as he tried to help an elderly woman.

“It takes your breath away to hear these stories,” said Bell, the Birmingham, Alabama, bank’s branch delivery market manager. The woman whose husband had died had the staff inside Regions’ mobile branch, which was then parked outside the bank’s waterlogged Waverly location, in tears. Bell later walked outside to see another customer jumping for joy as she discovered that the contents of her safe deposit box were dry.

“You run the gamut of emotions,” said Bell.

Earlier this year, Regions, which has $157.8 billion of assets, expanded the use of its mobile branch from assisting customers after a natural disaster to matters less urgent but still important: meeting their banking needs at tournaments and events.

Regions’ choice demonstrates the versatility of mobile branches. Following natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods and tornadoes, financial institutions use these vehicles to deliver vital financial services to customers and noncustomers alike, notably withdrawing and depositing cash through onboard ATMs. Outside of emergencies, these branches may travel among underbanked and underserved neighborhoods to deliver financial education, or park at events to heighten brand awareness. PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh made a similar move to Regions in 2020, while Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati has been using its bus for dual purposes almost from the beginning.

Steven Reider, president of the consulting firm Bancography, finds there are three main uses for mobile branches: to help with disaster recovery, to replace branches in rural communities and to bring banking services to special events.

With special-events deployments, “it’s not as much about opening accounts, but more about introducing the brand, providing convenient cash access and building goodwill,” he said. He finds the rural and special-event use cases are less common than disaster recovery.

Regions’ portable branch was manufactured by MBF Industries, which engineers technical vehicles for different industries. The bank deployed its first version to help customers after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A satellite dish ensures connectivity when cell services are down.

The ATM can dispense cash, accept deposits of cash or checks for Regions customers and cash checks for customers around the clock. Inside, the structure is equipped with Wi-Fi, laptops, a teller cash recycler and more, meaning “we can do just about everything in the portable branch that we can do in our branches today,” Bell said. A wheelchair lift lets customers with a wheelchair, walker or crutches easily enter the vehicle. One of the desks inside meets American with Disabilities Act height requirements and has plenty of space to accommodate a wheelchair.

May 11 marked the first pivot of the portable branch, when it parked outside of the country club hosting the Regions Tradition golf tournament in Birmingham. In July, the vehicle was stationed at the World Games, an international multisport event of which Regions was a title sponsor.

“We felt like it’s a great brand play,” Bell said. “It gave us a different way to deliver our banking services.”

It also opened the door to conversations about how the branch supported customers recovering from a natural disaster.

“We heard lots of times, ‘Wow, I didn’t know Regions had this available,’ ” Bell said.  

The reasons for visiting vary depending on the circumstances. 

“If your home or business has been impacted by a storm, your immediate thought is, I need money,” Bell said. “It becomes a cash society.” Customers may also deposit checks from their insurer so they can jump-start the process of restoring their homes and businesses. Vehicle staffers will escort customers into a closed branch where possible so they can retrieve contents from their safe deposit boxes.

At the golf tournament and World Games, some customers stopped by to take care of business they had been meaning to get to or to replace their lost debit cards. A few people even opened accounts. The presence of the portable branch was particularly beneficial to small business owners at the World Games if their storefronts were located in the parts of downtown Birmingham that had been blocked off.

PNC, which has $559.5 billion of assets, has been deploying its mobile branches to disaster locations for more than 15 years. In 2019, it started acquiring more units so in 2020, it could roll them out to cities for regular rotations in underserved neighborhoods.

PNC mobile branch outside My Brother's Keeper resource center in Baltimore

PNC Financial Services has dedicated this mobile unit to community outreach in Baltimore, Maryland.

“We learned that bringing branches to people allows us to access communities we otherwise couldn’t,” said Alex Overstrom, head of retail banking at PNC.

The units are each staffed with four people. PNC has assigned mobile branches to routes in Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas and Detroit and plans to expand to several more in 2023. The bank partners with local nonprofits to optimize their routes and deliver services in tandem, such as financial wellness seminars, first-time-homebuyer education, or banking to people who feel uncomfortable going to traditional branches. In Baltimore, for example, PNC partners with Catholic Charities of Baltimore, which runs shelters, job training programs and more; Community Assistance Network, which supports people in the county experiencing economic challenges; Coppin State University, a historically Black university; and more.

The bank owns 16 units, with six more on order; they are also manufactured by MBF Industries. Satellites and generators help the vehicles function in challenging environments. PNC’s collection includes 40-foot trucks that can replicate the full functionality of a branch, 30-foot vehicles that have most but not all of the same capabilities, and vans with ATMs. Last year, a 40-foot vehicle stayed put for months as the bank rebuilt a branch in Kentucky that had been destroyed by a tornado.

“We think about natural disasters as relatively constrained in timeframe, but some can stretch out for a long period,” Overstrom said.

The $206.7 billion-asset Fifth Third has been using its Financial Empowerment Mobile, or “eBus,” for both purposes for nearly two decades. The vehicle houses computer workstations, laptops and a classroom area. Fifth Third partners with organizations such as the National Urban League and the NAACP to deliver programs related to financial literacy, homeownership and small-business entrepreneurship in various regions 11 months out of the year, with special focus on nine specific historically Black neighborhoods in the bank’s 11-state footprint. The Community College Foundation, which runs programs for at-risk and underserved populations, designed the bus.

Fifth Third's Financial Empowerment Mobile, or “eBus"

Fifth Third Bancorp’s Financial Empowerment Mobile, or “eBus,” traveled to Florida following Hurricane Ian in early fall.

“It’s about bringing the bank to the community versus asking the community to come to the bank,” said Kala Gibson, chief corporate responsibility officer of Fifth Third.

The eBus has been on the road since 2004 to deliver financial education. It first deployed to a disaster zone in 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, even though Mississippi, where the bus was stationed, was not in the bank’s footprint. Gibson notes that there have been a number of natural disasters in the bank’s service area in recent years, from hurricanes in Florida to tornadoes in Ohio to flooding in Kentucky. Fifth Third will dispatch its eBus typically a few days after a calamity strikes so residents of hard-hit areas can use the internet, contact family members, apply for federal assistance and access drinking water. Like the others, it uses satellite internet when needed to make transfers and payments. However, the eBus does not carry cash.

“You learn over time how you can use this mobile bus more effectively to extend our reach outside of financial services to human services,” Gibson said.

The eBus took a hiatus in 2020 during the pandemic but returned to the road in July 2021 to review credit reports and discuss finances with people outside a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Chicago.

Regions’ portable branch will stay in North Port, Florida, through Dec. 6.

Bell doesn’t yet know what is next for the vehicle.

“We’ll clean it up and get it restocked and see what the next opportunity is for us,” she said.

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