When the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus forced CEO John Asbury to send most of Atlantic Union Bankshare Corp.’s 2,000 employees to work from home, it gave him the chills.
After all, the Richmond, Virginia-based bank is hardly a digital-only enterprise. It has a branch-centric strategy that emphasizes face-to-face customer service. And like most traditional companies, it has lots of people working in big offices.
To Asbury’s immense relief, everyone has quickly adapted to the demands of running a $17.6 billion institution with a distributed workforce. “A month ago, it was quite candidly terrifying, the notion of moving the company to a virtual status,” he says. “But I have to tell you, at this point we’re actually pretty comfortable with it.”
Ninety percent of Atlantic Union’s employees are now working from home, including Asbury and the bank’s senior management team.
As it turned out, working remotely was not the only challenge that Asbury and the bank’s employees would find themselves facing in the early days of the pandemic. Soon thereafter, a second challenge came in the form of an opportunity that hardly anyone was ready for — not just at Atlantic Union but throughout the banking industry.
The Small Business Administration’s Payroll Protection Program, included in a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill passed in late March, was designed to funnel $349 billion in loans to hard hit small businesses that have been forced to close as part of a broad nationwide lockdown intended to curb the virus’ spread. But almost no one was prepared to take loan applications on the program’s April 3 start date, least of all the SBA.
Many banks, including some of the country’s largest, were slow to engage because of their uncertainty about various details in the hastily rolled out program. Asbury, however, decided that Atlantic Union owed it to its small business customers in Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland to quickly embrace the program and help them get funded.
“I think we all feel the weight of our responsibility,” Asbury says. “I never thought we would be an economic first responder. I never thought we would be at the scene of the crash, and here we are. You cannot say to your customers, ‘Sorry, it’s just too much work,’ or ‘Sorry, we just can’t go fast enough,’ or say, ‘Well, we’re going to do this for a privileged few, because the others aren’t worth it.’”
And yet for all of Asbury’s determination to respond quickly, there were many problems that had to be solved along the way. For starters, the bank did not have the right technology to handle the large volume of loan applications that it expected to receive. It had recently licensed an automated workflow solution to build an online account opening system, but the bank’s new head of digital technology concluded that it wasn’t the right solution for account opening. Asbury says she quickly negotiated a credit with the vendor and chose a different technology instead.
“The team literally, in a matter of days, was able to repurpose the solution and stand up an online application web portal and an automated workflow system, which is essentially a virtual assembly line,” Asbury says. Many of the bank’s employees worked 12 hour days and weekends to have the system up and running by April 3. “To be able to build this automated assembly line … recognizing that everyone working on it is sitting in their homes, is unbelievable,” he adds.
Another challenge was the SBA’s failure to provide lenders with a standard note agreement, one reason why some large banks were slow to engage in program. If a bank doesn’t use the SBA’s standard agreement, the agency won’t guarantee the loans. Asbury decided the bank couldn’t afford to wait for the SBA to resolve that issue, so he took a risk. “We used our best educated guess to create our own note, in the spirit of the agreement, and we began to fund,” he says. The agency later said it was okay for banks to use their own note agreements.
Once Atlantic Union began submitting loan applications, the SBA’s “E-Tran” electronic loan processing system kept crashing under the torrent of submissions it was receiving from lenders throughout the industry. The bank had 30 people who manually keyed in data, and is implementing automated technology to import the application data and upload it into the E-Tran system, which will greatly shorten the application process. “We think we can get the cycle time down to one minute for one loan, and that’s really important,” Asbury says.
The bank had 400 employees working full time on the program, including Asbury’s own administrative assistant who was approving loans. Through April 15, 5,717 Atlantic Union customers had been approved for loans totaling $1.42 billion. The program is now out of funds, although the bank has decided to continue accepting application in the hope that Congress will provide additional funding.
The pandemic proved to Atlantic Union that it is both resilient and innovative, traits that will benefit it long after the COVID-19 crisis has passed. “It’s going to cause us to be more courageous,” Asbury says. “I don’t mean we’re going to be hasty [or] impulsive, but I think that we’re going to be able to make big decisions more confidently, and frankly quicker as we’ve proven we can do it.”