Josh Swerling and Bill Goebel

“When one has finished building one’s house, one suddenly realizes that in the process one has learned something that one really needed to know in the worst way — before one began.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Developing a new bank branch is a great way of promoting your brand and often a good strategy to reach your institutional goals. The initial step toward successful growth is to assemble the right team that will make solid development decisions.

At the onset, a development team should include key members of the bank and external consultants. The internal team must prioritize the new store growth goals for the institution. It’s also imperative to detail specific target markets and neighborhoods for growth; business lines to be offered; whether to purchase or lease the land; and how much risk the bank is willing to take as it relates to the transaction, entitlement and/or construction process.

Initially, external team members should include a real estate broker and a site/civil engineering consultant. Additional team members (architects, attorneys, traffic engineers, environmental and geotechnical consultants) can be gathered as appropriate during the project’s course.

This core group of external consultants will advise the bank, and the team should understand the intricacies of the development so that you can avoid the potential pitfalls of “building one’s house” for the first time. Further, you will find that a good, reputable site/civil engineering consultant will take the time at the beginning of a budding relationship with your organization to discuss and help manage the development process and make sure the bank’s expectations are met.

Once your real estate broker has identified a site that generally meets your criteria, engage your civil engineering consultant to help your team determine if the site fits your bank’s needs. For example: Is the location marketable and will it be convenient to your customers? Is the location highly visible and can customers easily gain access to the building? Is the site properly zoned to allow for bank use? With a drive-thru? Will the site accommodate the building size and amount of parking desired for customers and employees? Is the potential construction cost within the established budget?

The civil engineer should prepare a conceptual site sketch to determine if the identified site will accommodate the specific offerings, and provide initial insight relative to feasibility of land development. This initial investment can save significant time, costs, and may help to identify development challenges and significant cost drivers or zoning/time constraints early in the process. (Identifying these issues early on is key; they may affect your decision making and will help you focus on the feasibility of your site.)

Once it looks as though it’s passing muster, your real estate broker and transaction attorney will assist you in negotiating a real estate deal. The deal should include an up-front time allowance for an inspection period where you and your team are allowed access to the site to perform more thorough due diligence and, at the end of which, you can determine whether or not to continue with the transaction. (You can easily see how sometimes all of the above could erringly be done in reverse.)

If all of this looks promising and a real estate deal comes together, the development team will go to work to perform more thorough due diligence (e.g., site survey, geotechnical/ environmental investigations, zoning review) to further define cost drivers that could involve significant cuts/fills, rock removal, retaining walls, utility extensions, existence of unsuitable soils, environment impacts, etc. It is also important to define the permitting process and critical path, which will help establish the overall project timeline. The civil engineer can also develop a preliminary site plan to confirm that the proposed building footprint, parking and associated infrastructure will fit on the subject parcel.

Ultimately, these results, measured against the land value and transaction terms, are what should lead you to a “deal or no deal” decision, which can often be made for a relatively small investment.

After completing the preliminary work and the deal still remains intact, it’s time to begin executing the design efforts and the previously developed permitting strategy. With your bank’s brand and goals in mind, and utilizing an architectural building footprint, the development team should prepare site documents and reports. The goal: to design a project that is approvable, functional and safe, while keeping any eye on ultimate construction costs and objectives of the bank. A typical site design will include site layout, grading/drainage, storm water management, utilities design, lighting, landscaping, roadway/intersection design, etc., and generally requires input from all stakeholders.

Once the plans are submitted to the various local, state and federal jurisdictional agencies, effective follow-up meetings and public hearings will likely be required to gain approvals. Effective communication and presentation during the permitting process can make or break the project timing and budget. There should be proper negotiation by the bank and development team with the various jurisdictional agencies to maintain balance so that the ultimate product is not only acceptable from the agencies’ standpoint but, more important, so that it is acceptable to the bank and will promote the short- and longterm success of the facility.

With municipal approvals in hand, your development team should prepare construction documents that contain information necessary to obtain a local building permit. It is essential to engage a general contractor that maintains the wherewithal and reputation to execute high-quality work so you can open your doors on time, on budget and in-line with your bank’s brand, and develop a plan for the general contractor to solicit subcontractor bids. The idea is to quickly and efficiently execute the build-out of the project.

Last but not least, maintaining open lines of communication with the project team throughout construction will help facilitate a successful project. Follow these steps and you will lead your institution toward opening a successful bank branch that is visible, safe, convenient — and profitable.

Josh Swerling is senior associate and Bill Goebel is branch manager in the New England office in Southborough, Mass., of Bohler Engineering. They can be reached at and or 508-480-9900.