Wells Fargo ATMs at McMurdo Station, Antarctica

The Wells Fargo ATMs at McMurdo Station in Antarctica

I was fascinated when I learned that there was an ATM on Antarctica, specifically at McMurdo Station. Just because, you know, it's not like your local ATM that they can zip a service tech out to. So to sate my curiosity, I gave a ping to Wells Fargo, who manages that ATM--and got a chance to chat with David Parker. All shall be explained.

This interview was conducted via Skype on January 5, 2010.

Widgett: David, if you could tell me first what you do for Wells Fargo….what's your official title?

David Parker: I'm a Vice President in the ATM banking division.

W: So you're the Vice President over all the ATMs globally, or how does that work?

DP: One of them. I actually run a group that includes what we call "ATM quality," which is ensuring that our ATMs are working, that they're live and operational, and that customers are having a good experience.

W: Okay, and we specifically wanted to talk about the ATM that I guess you're in charge of there in Antarctica. So, you would be in charge of the quality of the experience of those people using that ATM in Antarctica?

DP: Correct.

W: Okay, that makes sense. Now, is there only one unit down there, or how many units do you guys have installed?

DP: Well, there's actually two.

W: Ah, a backup. That makes sense.

DP: That's exactly what it is. There are two pieces of hardware, but only one is operational at a time.

W: Ah. So that goes to one of my obvious questions, which is how exactly do you get service people down there to take care of it? So how do you do that? I mean, obviously, you've got a backup in place, but it seems that that would probably be one of your most challenging units.

DP: You know, that is a very good question, and you're right it is challenging--certainly makes for a long commute for our servicers. I'm kidding there…tongue-in-cheek… No, actually, what we do--first of all, the cash on the ice is recycled. So McMurdo Station (which is the scientists' station there on Antarctica)... any sort of venue, the cash is all recycled, and so there's no cash vendor that has to go down all the time to a regular ATM to replenish the cash volume.

W: Right…there's only so many places one can run with cash down there, I assume.

DP: Correct. So they may have, I don't know….maybe a company store and that kind of stuff and they can buy stuff there…anyway, the cash is all recycled around.

W: Right. Now, when was this first installed?

DP: Oh, you know, I don't know the exact date, but I'm going to take a wild stab in the dark here and I believe it was right around 2000.

W: Hmm. So what were they doing before 2000? Were they using...snow for currency, or what were they doing?

DP: (laughs) You know, I don't know the answer to that….I don't know what they were doing. You know, if you want I could kind of give you a little history of sort of how we got involved.

W: Please.

DP: I think the experiment or experiments that they are doing in Antarctica were part of one of the universities--or [had] heavy involvement from the university--and the university, I think, originally approached us and asked us if we'd put an ATM down there, and we of course had a very similar reaction to the one you just described, which was "Why would we need an ATM in Antarctica?" And I believe now that McMurdo is all run by Raytheon Corporation, and so that's a little history of sort of how we got involved in it. But now, as I said, the cash is all recycled, it's done by the employees there that work at McMurdo Station…and the other ATM…we have two ATMs there….one is operational at a time. The other is one that they can sort of cannibalize, if you will, for parts or spare things that they need to make the other one live and operational. We do send a vendor down about once every two years to do some preventative hardware maintenance on both of the ATMs, to make sure they're operational, change out the belts and that kind of stuff, provide new cartridges…anything else hardware-wise that we would need to make sure that it runs. But as you can imagine getting somebody down there is quite a feat.

W: Um—yeah.

DP: And it's obviously a trek, so it's only done once every other year.

W: Now, is there anything special about those machines, because, I mean, just from my experience with ATMs: they go down seemingly every time you need them in some cases. Is there anything special that you guys have done to those machines that you can get away with sending somebody down once every two years? Because that sounds like an impressive track record.

DP: Well, the one thing that we've done, obviously, is we've trained the folks that are there on the ice to take care of the ATM, so they are basically self-servicing the ATM in the meantime, and then, like I said, just doing a really heavy, heavy preventative maintenance once every other year, and then having the other ATM that they can sort of utilize if there's a problem with the one running at the time, they can switch it over or they can use it to change out parts and that kind of stuff, so it gives them some spare parts if it's needed.

W: Right. So if I were to compare the guts or the actual machine of this to just another Wells Fargo ATM, it's just a standard machine?

DP: That's correct.

W: Okay. So you guys have the only ATMs down there, I assume….

DP: Correct.

W: So really you could say that Wells Fargo handles the ATM banking for an entire continent.

DP: (laughs) That's true.

W: That should be in the literature. That sounds impressive just on its own.

DP: That's true, and actually you know what….I think this was in '98 when we did this, because the reason I remember that is that there was quite a bit of excitement when Y2K came around. It was the first ATM in the world to convert to Y2K because of the time.

W: Because we're not going to be able to get anybody down there….

DP: Right.

W: Okay, that makes sense.

DP: And everybody was interested in watching it to make sure there were no issues.

W: Nice. Okay, so obvious question then, I guess, comes next…I do not, myself, bank with Wells Fargo, so what would the service fees for me be like?

DP: It would be just like if you went to any other bank's ATM. So if you don't bank with Wells Fargo, if you went to one of our ATMs on Main Street, USA, you would pay the surcharge and then you could access that cash.

W: That's impressive. And fair, somehow. Now, it seems to me that, I mean, obviously, this is not sitting out on the ice, I mean, it's within the facility itself, but it seems like a very extreme location for an ATM. Are there any others that you guys have that you're aware of that you think would beat this one out, or does this pretty much take the cake for right now? I mean, until you put one on Mars or something.

DP: (laughs) We're not quite on Mars yet...

W: Not yet.

DP: I think this one would pretty much take the cake as far as the most unusual location. We do have a large presence in Alaska, so by that measure we're at the North Pole and the South Pole.

W: There you go. Wells Fargo worldwide…that's impressive. Again, one for the literature. Although you have to be careful, you never know….I guess Citigroup could be trying to install one at the top of K-2 to try to get some press from you.

Interview continues on Page 2