First Fed Bellevue Team: Branch Manager Nicole Zhao, Assistant Branch Manager Ambrose Ng, and Universal Banker Toshi Mei.

For community banks like First Fed, connecting with the local community is an essential and celebrated part of doing business. This includes understanding the key demographics of the region, both in language and culture. While planning the opening of a new branch in Bellevue, the region’s unique cultural mix was an important part of the development process.

Celebrating a Diverse Bellevue
Bellevue, WA is an incredibly diverse city with 39% of the population foreign-born and 43% speaking a language other than English at home, according to the 2017 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census. As of 2019, Asians comprise nearly 38% of Bellevue’s population, with Chinese languages being the most spoken after English.

Language skills have contributed to the success of Nicole Zhao, Branch Manager of First Fed Bellevue branch, who regularly receives positive feedback from customers. When she started in banking 13 years ago, it was uncommon to offer services in multiple languages. But as King County has grown more diverse, bilingual skills have become a highly desired skillset.

“It’s really important for customers to feel understood,” says Zhao. “Bellevue is so diverse that when people walk in, they immediately look around for someone who might speak their language.”

Zhao was born and raised in Guangzhou, China where she spoke Cantonese at home and learned Mandarin in school. When she was 16, she moved to the Seattle area where she earned her degree in Economics from the University of Washington.

Nicole Zhao, Branch Manager of First Fed Bellevue.

Bilingual banking has become more common practice, she says, because it allows businesses to connect with a larger customer base.

“People open up when you speak their native language,” says Ambrose Ng, First Fed Bellevue’s Assistant Branch Manager. “There is an instant connection that forms. The better you can understand the customer the easier it is to find the right financial solutions to help them.”

Ng was born in Hong Kong and grew up primarily in Taiwan before moving to America. He has also enjoyed using his trilingual skills in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English during his 16 years in banking. Ng finds that the best approach is to begin each transaction in English, letting the customer indicate which language they are most comfortable in.

“We are excited to have a dynamic team at our new branch that reflects the Bellevue community,” says Derek Brown, First Fed’s Chief HR and Marketing Officer. “Their combination of banking leadership and language skills is a welcome addition as we continue to grow into new markets.”

More than Language
When speaking with customers in their native tongue, Zhao says that there is more to that connection than just translation.

“Sharing someone’s culture goes far beyond speaking the language,” added Zhao. “It’s one thing to speak a foreign language, but understanding a customer’s culture allows you to see things from their perspective. There is an immediate appreciation and relief when they realize you have that connection with them.”

Multilingual skills have opened up banking opportunities even outside of the branch. Ng relates a time he was chatting in Mandarin with a local Bellevue chef who it turned out needed a home loan. That casual restaurant interaction developed into a full banking relationship.

“We enjoy making personal connections with our customers,” added Ng. “Having diverse cultures and languages among our team increases those opportunities.”

Beyond Bellevue
While Chinese languages are second to English in Bellevue, across the state of Washington, Spanish is the second most common language.

“It’s important to represent the market you are in,” says Lirio Perez, Commercial Relationship Manager with First Fed. “As a local community bank, we are invested in improving the lives of those we serve.”

Perez’s parents immigrated to America from the Dominican Republic. Growing up, he spent many summers visiting family and immersing himself in the Spanish language and Dominican culture.

Lirio Perez, Commercial Relationship Manager with First Fed.

Image: Radley Muller

“No one wants to be misunderstood,” added Perez. “If people don’t speak a language well, they might worry about misunderstanding complex transactions or even whether they are being exploited. There is an immediate relief and trust that comes from a shared language.”

Zhao, Ng, and Perez all expressed their pleasure in being able to relate and communicate with a broader section of the community. For First Fed, celebrating team diversity goes hand in hand with celebrating the communities they serve.

To learn more about First Fed visit ourfirstfed.com. First Fed is a Member FDIC and Equal Housing Lender. 

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