Small but mighty

Community banks take lead in helping businesses through pandemic

Posted on Aug 31, 2020 :: Insight Insider
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

For Bobby Yun, the date of March 16 will live in infamy.

Two days after that fateful day when the state put in place its first major action to curtail the spread of COVID-19, Yun, the owner of Urgent Care Physicians in Appleton, saw a 90 percent drop in patient volume.

“It was like somebody turned off a spigot. People were so afraid to come in, even for reasons they should,” he says.

The days and weeks that followed brought greater restrictions, leading up to the Safer at Home Order going into place on March 24. This led to more suffering for Yun’s business, which some days saw as few as three patients come in throughout the entire day.

Yun quickly realized he needed to consider making difficult decisions, including closing the clinic temporarily and reducing staffing. He ultimately ended up laying off or furloughing 80 percent of his 18-person staff.

A glimmer of hope came with the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program in early April. Yun promptly contacted the two national banks he worked with for his business, but he didn’t hear anything back for a month. Ultimately, the first round of $349 billion in PPP funding ran out in 13 days, and Yun didn’t receive any money.

Four days before the second round of funding opened in late April, Yun was ready. He knew funds were limited and was prepared to apply immediately — only to hit more roadblocks when he reached out to a local contact for a national bank.

Finally, Yun sought the advice of a friend and fellow small business owner, who suggested Yun try a local bank. He remembered someone mentioning Hortonville-based Wolf River Community Bank, so Yun reached out.

He got in touch with Wolf River Senior Commercial Lender Joe Ackerman and left a message. Yun was stunned to receive a call back 15 minutes later. “The first thing he said was, ‘We can help you,’” Yun says.

Yun provided Ackerman his information that Friday, and when the PPP opened that Monday, Yun received a call with the confirmation number for the loan. That same day, he was able to bring back his entire staff and operate the clinic for its normal hours.

While Yun says his business still faces a lot of uncertainty — it’s now operating at about 80 percent capacity — the PPP money and help from Wolf River has helped sustain it. “Without that, I think we’d be literally shut down right now,” he says.

Meeting the need

Jason Bloxham, executive vice president and chief lending officer for Wolf River, says he and his team worked many nights and weekends and saw a great increase in demand for services throughout the application times for the PPP.

Wolf River, which operates four branches on the west side of the Fox Cities, tends to work with the smaller of small businesses, including many one- and two-employee operations, Bloxham says.

“Some of the decisions for them were, do we just stop and go get a job somewhere else versus owning our own businesses and what are the prospects of getting a job during that point in time?” he says. “Hopefully, they were able to continue doing what it is they had always done and what they were obviously passionate about, which was their own business.”

By mid-June, the small bank had funded $12 million in PPP loans, providing funding for 193 small businesses and supporting more than 1,600 employees.

David Coggins, executive vice president and chief banking officer for Investors Community Bank, says it was a similar “mad scramble” for the Manitowoc-based bank. The madness increased with the lack of clarity surrounding rules and the details changing day to day.

“We had to make decisions about how we wanted to proceed in the absence of clear guidance. It was a little unnerving,” he says.

In spite of that, Coggins says Investors owed it to customers to make decisions that would serve them well. For the first round of PPP funding, the bank only took applications from its customers. It opened applications to non-customers for the second round, funding loans for about 150 non-customers.

In addition to funding PPP loans, Investors communicated frequently to customers, conducted webinars and led question-and-answer sessions. Community banks know their customers well and don’t treat them like a number, Coggins says.

“We like to believe that we have a little bit of an edge in staying close to our customers, really getting to know them and having front-line people that understand their business and take time to learn about it,” he says.

In the first round of PPP funding, Investors approved 677 loans, and in the second round that increased to 906, resulting in more than $106 million invested into the local economy.

Like Investors, Green Bay-based Bay Bank responded quickly to the financial devastation the pandemic brought. Even before PPP was introduced, the bank began issuing loan deferrals to any customer that needed them, says President and CEO Jeff Bowman.

“We had people calling us right away saying, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to have a business,’” he says, noting that the bank’s customers include hotels, restaurants and taverns.

All told, Bay Bank funded more than 100 loans for a total of $13 million. To fund a loan, banks must have cash, so Bay Bank had to raise that cash in addition to navigating a new system, all while documenting and closing loans.

As one of only a few banks in Wisconsin to hold the Community Development Financial Institutions designation, Bay Bank was selected for inclusion in a Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. grant program. WEDC granted Bay Bank $427,000, which the bank then granted to small businesses. Through the program, the bank made grants to 45 small businesses, with an average grant size of about $9,500.

The bank, which is owned by the Oneida Nation, underwrote 98 grants for Oneida small businesses that were adversely impacted by the pandemic. “(The CDFI designation) is a badge of honor you own to show you’ve made financial investments in companies and people,” Bowman says.

Peace of mind

For Chris Lindemann, president of Wisconsin Fastener Supply in Manitowoc, the PPP money and the trust he had in Investors were invaluable. Anxiety ran high in mid-March at his industrial supply business, which employs about 17.

Lindemann’s banker at Investors helped him complete the PPP application on a Friday. The banker assisted with a question that arose the next day, and by Sunday Lindemann received a text that the loan had been approved. On Monday morning, Lindemann logged in, and the money was in his account.

“I was able to gather (my employees) and give them some certainty when there wasn’t a lot of certainty to be had. That felt good to be able to do that for them,” Lindemann says.

The PPP money allowed Lindemann and his team to put focus where it needed to be, and they have lived by the motto, “win the day.” The company can now concentrate on finding easier ways to put its products, which include personal protective equipment, into customers’ hands through methods such as contactless delivery and curbside pickup.

Darren Voigt, chief lending officer for Bank of Luxemburg, says the bank worked overtime to process PPP loans
for its customers.

“We ended up closing more loans in a 30-day period of time than we normally do in probably three to four years,” he says.

The loans helped customers allay fears about having to lay off long-term employees. One of BOL’s biggest success stories is Reynolds Packaging in Green Bay.

The manufacturer of short-run plastic bags used its PPP loan money to help keep staff. With some of the worry alleviated, one of Reynolds’ owners was able to focus on retooling part of the plant to begin to make PPE such as masks for hospitals.

Voigt says he thinks businesses are seeing the benefits of choosing smaller banks. “I think it really has (opened people’s eyes). We did a number of PPP loans for customers of other larger banks that wouldn’t even return a phone call. They’ve since migrated over,” he says.