Picture a dramatic atrium lobby, sleekly adorned with glass, marble, and granite, featuring a cascading water wall that soars 28 feet high and a curving, chrome staircase that leads to a bridge walkway over the lobby. Glass walls of different textures, which create a physical sense of clarity and accessibility, surround you.

What sounds like a classy, soaring urban hotel is actually the new Commerce University, the training center built by Commerce Bancorp Inc. in Mount Laurel, N.J., near its corporate headquarters.

This spectacular building is not only an investment in the bank's unusual culture, it's also a symbol of the company's passion and commitment to training. This is a different brand of bank: Its 450 branches, from Connecticut to Southeast Florida, open early — typically 8 a.m. — and close late — usually 8 p.m. And they are all open seven days a week. The $48 billion bank operates more on a retail business model than a bank model, and it is often compared to Starbucks, McDonald's, and Nordstrom for its convenience, service, and design standards.

Some of the transaction volumes at Commerce “stores” are unheard of, with as many as 100,000 transactions a month. Few businesses in any retail sector are used to that kind of volume, even McDonald's.

“We grow about 50 stores a year,” says Rhonda S. Costello, dean of Commerce University, “But it's not only store employees that we train — it's everyone throughout the organization. So when we get folks who we know are going to be a right fit for our culture and our organization, we want them to grow with the company.”

Tailored Training

Commerce has more than 15,000 team members, and in 2006 it filled 46,000 seats with instructor-led classes. That means that the average employee took a little more than three instructor-led classes last year. If you add to that the 110,000 online clicks for Web-based courses, the average rises to 10 classes per year. The bank invests 5 percent of its payroll budget in Commerce U., which is roughly double what other financial institutions spend on their training.

Rather than “training,” Commerce calls what happens in Mount Laurel and its 17 satellite universities “Get S.M.A.R.T.,” for the five customer service principles that sustain Commerce: Say yes; Make every customer feel special; Always keep your promises; Recovery is divine, to err is human; and Think like your customer.

In the CSR training room, new recruits sit at a regular desk that is set up just like it would be in a Commerce store, right down to the (fake) money in the cash drawer.

“We try to simulate the store environment in training so that when they go into the store, it's not a hard transition,” Costello says. “They do transactions, they talk with each other, they do customer-service scenarios, and role-play.”

The two-story WOW! Theater in the building's center seats 340 people in retractable bleachers. Flat-screen televisions are above the stage. The theater was fashioned after a black box theater so that it can be flexible. It features the illusion of a blue skylight, which was created after its designers read studies indicating that if attendees felt as if there was natural light, they could stay in an area much longer, comfortably, for a presentation. There's also a kitchen that can provide full catering services.

New hire officers' orientation takes place in the theater, so within the first 60 days of employment, no matter where a person is based geographically in the Commerce footprint, that person comes to Commerce University.

The conference center includes individual rooms with the monikers “Magic,” “Buzz,” “Creativity,” “Culture,” and “Passion.” It surrounds a refreshment area called “Surprise and Delight,” where trainees can choose from an assortment of croissants and hot, soft pretzels (a staple in the break rooms of its corporate offices as well) in the morning, and fresh-baked cookies and popcorn in the afternoon. There are also bins of trail mix. Commerce U also stocks free bottled (Commerce-branded) water and a wide selection of soft drinks.

The room designs were carefully thought out. “The tables are not regular tables; they are open in the center so that the facilitator can stand there,” explains Costello. “On the walls, you'll see reinforcement of [the company's] messages. Like, for example, the Innovation Room. When you walk in, on the wall you'll see ‘Re-imagine your business.’ And anywhere that you look, you will see what we refer to as ‘slices of life’ — actual pictures from various Commerce events, grand openings, etc. — that we've enlarged and put on the walls. So when we have guests, [they can see] what we do here at Commerce. We also have Commerce ‘C's everywhere — more than 5,000 C's in this building.”

High ROI

Why invest in permanent training facilities? Why not just rent hotel breakout rooms or community centers as needed? The answer is twofold: quality and quantity.

Future Commerce tellers and customer service representatives start with nine days of training. In addition to that, everyone joining the organization spends their first day at a cultural indoctrination program called “Traditions.”

“If you think about that and renting facilities, it might not make so much sense over time, right?” Costello says. “We believe in surrounding our folks with an environment of excellence because it is going to raise their performance.

“If you were a teller trained in some damp, ugly basement, and then you go into a Commerce store and it's immaculate-looking, you're not going to know how to behave,” she adds. “Commerce stores are completely clutter-free. The CSRs at our stores don't have wastebaskets because we don't generate a lot of paper and waste paper. We even have a CSR desk in our CSR training rooms that looks exactly like the CSR desk in the store.”

But to Costello — and employees — the most important result “is that you actually feel the ‘Wow!’ of the Commerce culture.

“We have fan mail all throughout the entire building on our ‘Walls of Wow!’”

Commerce U Stats

64,000
square feet

5
technical training rooms

8
spacious conference rooms

7,500-
square-foot theater that can seat:

340
people