Community banks take care of small businesses, individuals | Sunday Stories


Second in a series

When the financial impact of the pandemic hit home, small business owners struggled to get loans from the big banks.

“If you look at where their customers are, they weren’t focusing on the Tri-Cities and this region,” said Will Barrett, president and CEO of Kingsport-based Bank of Tennessee, explaining the state of spirit of the big national banks when it came to prioritizing loans.

“They don’t walk past the clothing store, restaurant, or gas station, but we do and we saw the effect it had on the community.”

It was community banks like the Bank of Tennessee that came to the rescue, Barrett says, helping these local businesses get the money they need to stay afloat during the time of closure and pervasive fear.

When Congress created a program promising small business loans that would eventually become grants for those who qualified, the Bank of Tennessee and its more than 275 employees jumped into action, he says, many of them working at 2 am and spending sleepless nights to get these loans. for small businesses in the Tri-Cities.

“Looking back at what we’ve been able to accomplish and the schedule, it really made us proud to be bankers,” Barrett says.

The challenge with the loan program was that when it started it required a very manual process, he says. It took a while to make the process more automated. Until then, it was simply a matter of shredding mountains of paperwork and trying to get loans through a government website that wasn’t always functional, not knowing how quickly the money would run out.

The effort paid off, he said, both in terms of much needed cash and in helping people overcome the uncertainties the situation presented.

“There has been a lot of work that has gone on beyond the money, and it was a lot of consultation, advice and guidance throughout the pandemic,” Barrett said.

“Because we live here and know these companies, we could help advise them far beyond what PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] the numbers reflect, and these are the hours and hours spent with each company. Overall, as a result of the program, I think we’ve made close to 1,700 loans for $ 143 million. And if you look at the number of jobs supported, it was almost 20,000. “

“If you look at the area, it’s had a big impact just through our service at Bank of Tennessee,” he says, “and I would say that, combined with the other community banks in the area, you are really making a difference. . “

Barrett says this success in helping local businesses in Tri-Cities weather the pandemic downturn – at a time when many large banks were not prioritizing small customers – is an example of the difference between community-based banks. local and those based elsewhere.

“Small businesses make our whole region thrive, and if you look at our employer base, the vast majority are small businesses. I love the big businesses that we have in the region, but the heart and soul of this region is the small businesses, ”Barrett said.

“We go to church with the owners, we see them at the grocery store, we have coffee with them, and it’s something that personally, as a community bank, our success is tied to their success in the community. region and communities. ”

According to the trade association representing American small community banks, Independent Community Bankers of America, community banks provide about 75 percent of all small business loans nationwide.

Even though he’s grown to about 275 employees spread across northeast Tennessee, Barrett says he still views Bank of Tennessee as a small business; in the decades since its founding, it has grown with the region.

“We know the trials and tribulations that small businesses go through, so we can appreciate it,” he says, “and as a community bank we are reinvesting in the community.”

Founder William B. Greene Jr. said that although the M&A trend has had a major influence on the banking landscape nationwide, 85% of U.S. banking assets are owned by just nine banks and the country has no that a total of 4,000 banks, up from 17,000 in 1990 – community banks will always be involved in the economy. Why? Because they take care of the little guy.

“We have been doing it since [nearly] 50 years old, and we’re just getting better, ”says Greene. “It’s our bread and butter: it’s small businesses and the small individual customer who wants personal attention. “

Next week: Find out how community banks like the Bank of Tennessee are helping make the communities they serve a better place to live.

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