Hometown Bank Hustled, Delivering Hope for Local Small Businesses

On March 27, 2020 President Trump and Congress enacted legislation that created a $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for small businesses thrown into a tailspin by the coronavirus. The premise of the program relied on banks to get the money flowing quickly to their customers. Opening  to receive applications on April 3, the roll-out was not without its challenges.  Because of the incredible demand for these loans, the speed in which the program came about, guidance that was continually being developed, and banks not being prepared, the program was not a smooth process for most.

Many small businesses in the area, however, didn’t face those problems — in fact, they looked to their hometown bank as a beacon of light amid the darkness of uncertainty.

“Right from the start, as soon as we heard about the program, we tracked it through Congress, had conference calls with all the lenders and basically knew that this was something we had to get rolled out,” said Blake Willman, market president for the American Bank & Trust Wessington Springs branch.  “We knew how much of a help it was going to be for our communities.”

American Bank & Trust (AB&T) worked ahead of the opening date of April 3, 2020 — when the application acceptance period opened —  to put a team and process together to get ahead of the program and hit the ground running.

“What stood out to me is that we were all talking about the process. We were very proactive in contacting our customer list and getting them information as soon as it came to us,” Willman explained. “Our customers were prepared as soon as it opened up and we were able to put them in the system.”

Willman recalls that the application portal opened up in the afternoon and as soon as it went live, he and other AB&T employees started submitting and processing hundreds of businesses’ applications  within a 24 hour period.

“We worked through the night and throughout the weekend,” Willman remembers. “Our organization as a whole kind of rolled up our sleeves and got it done.”

He remembers one night, at about 10 p.m. when he was working at the bank and found some solace in seeing an indicator that he wasn’t the only one submitting PPP applications late into the night.

“Our computer system has green lights next to the employee accounts that are logged in and working,” he said. “  Most nights I looked down and saw a lot of loan officers with green lights illuminated.”

The term “banker’s hours” didn’t apply to Willman and his colleagues as the PPP program launched.

“During the day, regular business hours, the system would constantly crash,” he said. “We quickly figured out that if we stayed later and got up early, we could get the applications through the website.”

He credits AB&T with a successful rollout because of the teams that were established to focus on the program.  Business bankers, ag bankers, banking assistants, credit staff, IT, marketing and numerous other areas of the bank were asked to be a part of, or take on additional responsibilities to help customers through this program.

Since the first round of the PPP, on April 27 an additional $300 billion of funding was approved to help businesses that were not serviced in the first round with more guidance provided for the self-employed, contractors and agriculture sector.

“We are really tied to our community’s success. If Springs doesn’t do well, our branch doesn’t do well,” Willman said. “Doing right by our customers is a deep-seated belief tied to our mission. That also means doing what’s right for our customers all the time, and especially in times like these.”

Article courtesy of Wessington Springs True Dakotan

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