At some companies, nonmandatory training is the first thing to be cut when budgets are tight. Not at Commerce Bank. Here, training is a top priority for all employees — 15,000 and growing. In 2006, the year the new Commerce University training center opened in Mount Laurel, N.J., near the bank's corporate headquarters, it filled 46,000 seats with instructor-led classes, and had 110,000 clicks for online courses, meaning each employee took an average of 10 classes per year.

This fits with a business model uncommon in the banking sector. Commerce's 450 branches, from Connecticut to Washington, D.C., and in Southeast Florida, open early, typically 8 a.m., and don't close their doors until late, usually 8 p.m. — seven days a week. Some of its stores do more than 100,000 transactions a month.

The $48 billion bank invests 5 percent of its payroll budget in Commerce U. In 2005, that was roughly double what other financial institutions spent on training, on average, according to the American Society for Training and Development.

“We are a growth company,” says Rhonda S. Costello, dean of Commerce University, “and we add about 50 stores a year. But it's not only store personnel that we train, it's everyone throughout the organization, because infrastructure grows along with our stores. We believe in investing in our team members because the company really is only as good as its employees… and we want our new folks to grow with the company.” New 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,” which runs every Monday.

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

The building, dressed out in Commerce Bank colors of red and grey, has nearly 64,000 square feet of space, including five technical rooms, eight spacious conference rooms, and a 7,500-square-foot presentation area. Commerce U was designed to resemble the signature Commerce Bank look: It is filled with natural light, bright colors, and dramatic glass, marble, and granite architectural elements. The atrium lobby features a cascading wall of water that soars 28 feet and a curving, chrome staircase that leads to a bridge walkway over the lobby. “We believe in surrounding our folks with an environment of excellence, because it will raise their performance and behaviors,” notes Costello.

In the customer-service representative training room, new recruits sit at a regular desk that is set up just as it would be in a Commerce store, right down to the (fake) money in their cash drawers. “We try to simulate the bank environment so that when they go into the store, it's not a hard transition,” Costello says. “They make transactions, they talk with each other, and they do customer-service scenarios and role-play.”

The two-story WOW! Theater seats 340 people. It has retractable bleachers, flat-screen TVs up above the stage, and an illusionary blue skylight. There is also a full catering kitchen for doing events on site. New hire officers' orientation takes place in this theater within the first 60 days of employment.

Within the conference center are individual classrooms named Magic, Buzz, Creativity, Culture, and Passion. There's also a refreshment area called Surprise and Delight that stocks an assortment of croissants and hot, soft pretzels (a staple in the break rooms of the bank's corporate offices as well) in the morning, and fresh-baked cookies and popcorn in the afternoon. There are also bins with the makings of trail mix and bowls to carry them in. Commerce U also stocks a wide selection of free bottled (Commerce-branded) water and soft drinks.

Every design element in the classrooms was chosen to help learning take place. Some of the tables, for example, were designed with open space in the center for the facilitator to sit or stand while leading discussions. As well, much of the décor reinforces the corporate message. For instance, in one classroom all of the artwork is themed to what the bank calls “slices of life”: blown-up photographs from various Commerce events. And signature “Commerce C” logos can be found integrated into the artwork throughout the building — more than 5,000 of them.

“To me, the most important thing is that everywhere you go in this building, you feel the ‘Wow’ that's part of our customer culture,” says Costello. “We even have fan mail decorating some of the walls that we call our ‘Walls of Wow!’”

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