Four Questions for Three CEOs

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown the banking industry into an environment that is both rapidly changing and a prolonged grind.

The recession induced as a result of public and private response to Covid-19 has lowered the revenue outlook and increased credit risk for institutions across the country. Bankers must navigate an extraordinarily uncertain operating environment and make tough decisions. To that end, Bank Director created the AOBA Summer Series — a free, on-demand compilation of pragmatic information, honest conversations and real-world insight.  

The series goes live on Aug. 12. As a preview, we sat down (virtually) with three executives featured in the series — Chuck Sulerzyski, Jill Castilla and John Asbury — for a glimpse into where they see challenges, opportunities and inspiration. Sulerzyski is CEO of Peoples Bancorp in Marietta, Ohio, which has $5 billion in assets; Castilla is chairman and CEO of Citizens Bancshares, which has $317 million in assets and is based in Edmond, Oklahoma; and John Asbury is CEO of Richmond, Virginia-based Atlantic Union Bankshares Corp., which has $19.8 billion in assets. These conversations were conducted independently, and have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

BD: What is the biggest challenge you see for your bank?

JC: I think about businesses that aren’t able to recover as quickly and making sure that you have the tools available to get to the other side. These are unprecedented times and these businesses are struggling — not due to something they caused; it was something inflicted upon them. I think it’s going to be difficult moving through that.

JA: Navigating the credit risk implications of the Covid-19-induced recession. We remain confident in our overall asset quality, credit loss reserves, capital position and preparedness for this event. However, the duration of Covid-19 will largely determine just how great a challenge this will be. Time will tell.

CS: Maybe not in the next three months, but in the upcoming quarters, I think credit is going to be the biggest challenge, and helping our customers get through all of this. We feel good about our portfolio and its diversification. The places where we feel the most stress is in the hotel portfolio. Obviously, businesspeople aren’t traveling, and consumers are starting to travel a little more but way below normal levels. It’s very difficult for hotel operators to [meet] cash flow.

BD: What is the biggest opportunity for your bank?

JC: The biggest opportunity is continuing to be a leader and advocate, and restoring trust in financial services — both nationally as well as locally —  and being seen as a trusted advisor and a trusted advocate.

JA: The bank has demonstrated resilience, agility, courage and innovation in its response to Covid-19. We developed and launched an online portal and automated workflow system to take Paycheck Protection Program loan applications in five days because we remained agile and knew the stakes were high as our customers were counting on us. We were also quick to make difficult decisions to align our expense structure to the expected lower-for-longer rate environment, beginning in March, to ensure we emerge on the other side of Covid-19 positioned for success. Permanently ingraining these characteristics into our culture will result in an even better, stronger and more capable company.

CS: Peoples really crushed it on the PPP program. We were open for new customers and brought them in with the understanding they would become full-service customers. The biggest opportunity over the next three to six months is taking in these relatively new people and cross-selling them loans, deposits, insurance and investments. Already, we bought in over $40 million dollars of loans and deposits, and over $150,000 in fee income. 

BD: Where are you getting inspiration right now?

JC: So many places. I’m fortunate to be in a city that has diverse leadership. Whether it’s in our underrepresented and underserved communities, those leaders that have fought the odds for decades and are striving for their communities to reach higher levels and pull more out of me to be a better person, a better leader and a better businessperson, and provide access to capital and liquidity and things that. That’s been extraordinary. Seeing our leaders make hard decisions for the welfare of their communities or for the business community as well — that courage, whether I agree with the actions or not — seeing the willingness to take a stand and to stand up for something has been inspirational.

JA: Our teammates! They amaze me with their determination, resourcefulness, effort and caring for our customers and each other. Their efforts on PPP in particular were heroic.

CS: There’s much going on in the world. The healthcare workers, I’ve been touched by everything that they have done. One of my kids is a doctor, one is a nurse, and another is working on a Ph.D. in public health. All of what’s going on with healthcare workers and first responders has been very motivational. 

I know we’ve gone through a lot of social unrest, but I find inspiration in [Senator] John Lewis’ passing and everything that he stood for. I was eight years old when the Voting Rights Act was passed. It’s mind-numbing that folks of color didn’t have the opportunity to vote, and here we are, 50 years later, fighting similar fights and hopefully making progress.

BD: What has been the best thing you’ve read or watched since the pandemic began?

JC: Maybe because it’s on my mind, but the timeliness of the release of “Hamilton” [on the Disney+ streaming service]. I got to see it live in Oklahoma City a year ago; I had tickets and had waited forever to go see it. And then I got hit by a truck walking across my street two days before the show.

We ended up [seeing] the last performance before it left Oklahoma City. I’ve been really excited to see it coming back in my life a year later and in this time. The boldness of the vision to create a musical that uses a diverse cast and a difficult topic, the timeliness of the messaging and then making something accessible to everyone.

It’s the last thing I’ve seen that’s blown me away. But there’s been so many instances where someone has blown me away with something they’ve written online, an article I’ve read or a podcast I’ve listened to. This crisis is so bad, but again, you get to see this beauty of leadership, this boldness of action and constant inspiration of people stepping up and doing wonderful work.

JA: Despite having never worked longer or harder for such a sustained period of time, since Covid-19 hit I’ve read books extensively. The most impactful is “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. It has given me a perspective on social injustice and systemic racism that I did not have before, as well as a better understanding of its root causes and what can be done about it.

CS: I’m a Yankees fan; Aaron Judge had two home runs [in the Aug. 2 game against the Boston Red Sox], and I liked that a great deal. I also think John Lewis’ obituary goodbye letter in The New York Times was the best thing that I’ve read. We shared that so that our employees could read it.