How a PNC bank branch on wheels is helping Clevelanders

Written by Amanda

The blue and orange truck with the PNC Bank sign on top caught Sandra White’s eye.

Then she noticed that the truck parked outside the Greater Cleveland Food Bank in Collinwood had an ATM. Was this a bank on wheels? White was intrigued, but she hesitated to check it out. White doubted if PNC wanted her as a client. She hadn’t had a bank account in more than 20 years. Besides, she figured they were looking for people with at least a few hundred dollars to open an account.

But PNC mobile branch staff approached White. She would later be in the truck opening a bank account. The inside even resembled a bank branch.

This is an effort actually led by education. If in the process a person decides to utilize PNC services, that’s terrific.

PNC Regional President Pat Pastore said of the PNC mobile branch’s mission.

“I was always intimidated by banks, but not the truck,” White said. “It was just a comfort zone for me. They explained everything to me. They were interested in me and helping me start my financial journey. They followed up with me to make sure I understood everything.”

The PNC mobile branch is more than just a bank on wheels. Its focus is on outreach and providing financial education in primarily underbanked communities. These are areas where often there isn’t an adequate supply of banks and other mainstream financial institutions. Residents frequently rely on the unregulated shadow banking system, such as check cashing businesses, which often charge high fees. White used these types of business during the two decades she was without a bank account.

The mobile branch, which launched in January, doesn’t randomly make stops. It only stops at the nonprofit organizations and institutions PNC is collaborating with, which often want to improve financial literacy among the people they serve. So far, PNC is collaborating with more than a dozen organizations and institutions. They include the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, Fairfax Renaissance Development Corp.(FRDC) and the May Dugan Center.

The truck usually makes stops at its partners on set days and times every week or every other week. (See Where to find PNC’s mobile branch in your community for locations where the truck stops.)

Mobile bank branch staff talk about more than just opening accounts

This type of outreach literally means meeting people where they are. It was by design that a mobile branch staffer first approached White on that frigid January day. They don’t wait for people to come to them.

Outreach also means figuratively meeting people where they are. Mobile branch staff focus on what they refer to as having “meaningful conversations in which we move people forward financially,” said Erica Ressler, who manages the mobile branch. Staff have had more than 315 such conversations the first four months of the mobile branch’s existence.

Ressler said often these conversations don’t begin with discussions about opening accounts. Some people ask for help with understanding credit scores. Others have no concept of budgeting but are open to learning. Many have relied on check-cashing places, or apps based on similar principles, for so long that they really don’t know how a checking account works.

“We sit down with them, we walk them through how to get an account established and we teach them how to budget strategically,” she said.

PNC Regional President Pat Pastore said this often occurs through ongoing conversations.

“It may take 10 visits to build that rapport and that understanding,” he said.

“This is an effort actually led by education,” Pastore said of the mobile branch’s mission. “If in the process a person decides to utilize PNC services, that’s terrific.”

Cleveland is one of 10 cities with a PNC mobile branch

Cleveland is one of 10 PNC markets nationally with mobile branches operating in communities with a high number of underbanked households, he said. Others include Detroit, Chicago and Baltimore. Pastore said the mobile branches focus on communities “where there might not be a branch, PNC or any other bank, in close proximity.”

Unbanked households tend to have certain characteristics, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s (FDIC) most recent National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households. These households tend to be lower-income, less educated, Black or Hispanic, and headed by single mothers.

The 2021 survey found that Black and Hispanic households nationally tend to have higher unbanked rates “at every income level” than those of their white counterparts. Take households making between $30,000 and $50,000. Only 1.7% of white households were unbanked. For Black households, it was 8%, and 8.4% for Latino households.

Erica Ressler manages the PNC mobile branch. Staff dress casually in an effort to better connect with residents. The mobile branch, which operates like a full-service branch, has a focus on financial education. Staff have “meaningful conversations” with residents aimed at positioning them for financial wellness.

Issues relating to fees and minimum balance requirements emerged as a main reason among the unbanked for not having an account. About 30% of those surveyed cite such factors as not having enough money to meet the minimum account balance requirements, fees being too high and fees being too “unpredictable.”  

Some of these reasons led to White no longer using a bank, especially during a period when she struggled financially. Working with the mobile bank staff, she developed a savings strategy that dashed her misconceptions about larger deposits being the only ones worth making.

“You don’t have to have a lot of money,” she said. “If you have $10 or $20, you can make a deposit. The money starts to add up.”

PNC closed higher percentage of branches in Cleveland than in suburbs

White opting for check-cashing places over a bank branch might have been a matter of convenience. In most of the neighborhoods in which she had lived, they were easier to find than a branch. Staff at the cash-checking places were often friendly, knew their clients well and never hesitated to push products. These included high-interest loans such as those made against anticipated income tax refunds. 

“You can get your check cashed,” she said of the cash-checking places. “You can get a loan there, and they’ll also do your taxes. People don’t realize that when they get their money, they’ll have to pay back all that interest. 

“This is not about putting the check cashing people down,” she said. “All I’m saying is that people need to realize that they have other options.”

As mobile banking and online banking have increased, banks have closed branches. A Signal Cleveland analysis of FDIC data showed that bank branches closed in Cleveland at almost twice the rate as they did in the rest of Cuyahoga County.

The analysis found that PNC closed a higher percentage of branches in Cleveland between 2013 and 2023 than it had in the suburbs. The bank had 17 branches in the city in 2023, more than 43% fewer than in 2013. In the rest of Cuyahoga, PNC had 16 branches in 2023, 36% fewer than in 2013.

Pastore said when PNC decides whether to close a branch, the bank does a “pretty complex” analysis. He said the mobile branch isn’t intended to replace a branch, “but to fill in gaps.”

“When we brought the mobile branch to Cleveland, we took a look at all the communities,” he said. “We looked at where we felt there was the biggest need, and where we can have the biggest impact and bring the most value.”

White said the mobile branch is helping to position her for better economic security.

“I’m being educated about financial matters, and now I have a banking account,” she said. “Financial wellness feels so good.”

Source: signalcleveland.org

About the author


Hi there, I am Amanda and I work as an editor at impactinvesting.ai;  if you are interested in my services, please reach me at amanda.impactinvesting.ai