Much of the press surrounding the COVID-19 effect on public-facing careers rightfully centered on the healthcare industry. However, medical personnel weren’t the only ones stretched personally and professionally by its fury, writes Dan Weckerly.
I can personally and professionally attest to the fact that financial institution employees, too, logged long hours, faced desperate customers, and did their best to respond to distraught business owners.
In the early months of the pandemic, the Ambler Savings Bank Commercial Lending team rolled up their sleeves to help as best as we could.
But when the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) legislation was signed into law in April 2020, our efforts gained the traction needed to truly assist our struggling borrowers.
PPP loans were established through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020 and administered by the Small Business Administration (SBA), which also guaranteed each loan. However, it was up to financial institutions across the country, like Ambler Savings Bank, to play the indispensable role of private lender, connecting these funds with affected businesspeople once their applications were approved.
It is amazing to look back and reflect on the trials, long hours, successes, and hard work of the banking industry over the past year and a half.
In total, the Ambler Savings Bank team disbursed 632 loans that totaled over $46.2 million. These helped protect more than 5,129 jobs - to both customers and non-customers of the Bank.
For our small community bank that typically completes about 100 commercial loans and only a handful through the SBA each year, this was a major accomplishment. It represented the strength and heart of our team.
When round two of the program closed in May 2021, the SBA approved 100 percent of our loan applications, and funds were disbursed accordingly.
Relationships and Trust
It was in the days, weeks, and months of the PPP loan process, however, that I was able to see us personally deliver on the values we talk about every day in community banking. And the ones I strive to live out in my personal life.
Relationships that were built with customers and non-customers were an integral part of the process.
Often, I could hear the distress through the phone, many callers tearful, on how I was their last resort. They were often crystal clear on their desperation: Our assistance became the only thing between them and a business fail.
Many customers were downright surprised when I told them we could help, especially after they had been turned down numerous times by bigger financial institutions.
In fact, some were amazed that I was picking up my own phone to take their call. For them, dozens of unanswered voicemails — or even calls that netted endless ringing — had become the norm when calling other financial institutions
As I connected with desperate borrowers, I soon found that the primary role I could serve was as a listener. Often, troubled business owners simply needed someone to hear them, take in what was at stake, and recognize that action was required.
Yes, these sessions took a personal toll. The interactions were often exhausting to me and my colleagues. The specifics of these businesses often required special handling; their unique circumstances were often complex as were their sought specific tactics to fight a deadly, global pandemic that was completely out of their control.
For many, the best counsel I offered was my sympathetic ear.
It wasn’t easy. The long nights. The endless calls and emails. The utter despair.
However, both academically and through my years of experience, I felt prepared for this. This is exactly why I chose a career in community banking.
I knew firsthand that I had the connection to resources to keep them, their families, their employees, and their futures from peril. And that determination kept me and my fellow lenders going.
Ambler Savings Bank distinguished itself during the pandemic by being more than just a form-filling passer of information to the federal government.
We had to interpret regulatory changes and guidance, often coming from Washington on the fly, to ensure our borrowers submitted requests properly and completely. I remember hearing a local senator explaining the chaos and quickly changing rules saying, “The Treasury Department was building the plane while it was in the air”. A huge part of our effort wasn’t just dealing with customers but simply understanding the program so we could explain the rules to our customers.
We also ramped up internally on the details of specialized lending products that emerged parallel to the PPP financing. One of these, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF) Program, applied to businesses of a specific industry code that we found ourselves quickly developing expertise in identifying.
PPP Customer Success Stories
The payoff to all this effort were the successes.
I recall our assistance to a restaurateur with two storefronts. He was faced with closing one of them, which was damaged in the George Floyd-related rioting in Philadelphia.
His loan approval from the SBA was experiencing massive delays, and his business viability was waning.
We helped him apply for both rounds of PPP loans and referred him to the RRF program.
Fortunately, he connected in time with the capital he needed and survived. Neither restaurant location closed, and, in fact, both are returning to normal financial footing now.
Another borrower, an orthodontist, counted on the assistance of his go-to financial institution, a national bank. He applied for a loan but never received an answer. His non-returned calls piled up, as did his debt. A patient put him in touch with me and within 72 hours, he had his Ambler Savings Bank approval.
When I told him in a phone conversation that he and his staff would be okay, he was emotionally overwhelmed and relieved not to shutter his doors.
Yes, this period in my professional life was tough. Yes, it was stressful. Yes, it took a personal toll on me and my colleagues. But the privilege of serving our customers in a time of dire need was very rewarding.
I see the Ambler community around me — a tight-knit, familial place to work and live — slowly getting back on its feet again. And knowing that Ambler Savings Bank and its approval and oversight of PPP loans had a part in that revival makes me very proud.
I am honored by the profession I chose, the associates with whom I work, and the institution that allows me — encourages me, even — to bond 1:1 with my customers.
It’s difficult to say there was an upside to such a national tragedy. But the pandemic did enable me to come away from it with a better sense of the value of the professional relationships I have with our customers. The depth of my effect on their professional lives. The satisfaction in going the extra mile for them.
And I know I’m not the only one in the Ambler Savings Bank family of employees who feels this way.
Dan Weckerly is the editor of BUCKSCO.TODAY.
Helen Graner is an Assistant Vice President and Commercial Loan Officer at Ambler Savings Bank. A Philadelphia native (Roxborough/Manayunk), she holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Arcadia University and an MBA from Philadelphia University.