New York-based Piermont Bank opened its doors in July 2019. Just eight months later — on March 1 — a New York woman returning home from Iran became the city’s first Covid-19 case. By March 20, with cases in the state rapidly climbing, Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandated that non-essential businesses close. One hundred days after reporting its first case, New York began reopening — but as of Nov. 19, restrictions remained in place, and New York City public schools recently returned to virtual learning to combat a resurgence of Covid-19 cases.
What a time to run a bank — especially a new one.
It sounds counterintuitive at first blush, but Wendy Cai-Lee, the bank’s founder and chief executive, believes Piermont is well positioned to serve customers. The $117 million bank focuses heavily on commercial real estate loans; it also makes commercial and industrial (C&I) loans.
She points out that as a de novo, the bank’s balance sheet is clean; her team didn’t have to devote attention to working with troubled borrowers. Piermont also has a lot of capital on hand, with a leverage ratio of 32.82% as of June 30.
But Cai-Lee recognizes the broader, longer-term impact the pandemic could have on the New York market. “We have seen appraisal values essentially drop anywhere between 10% to 35%,” she says. Her team has a risk assessment meeting every Monday; when we spoke in October, they were evaluating the potential fallout from the end of unemployment benefits through the CARES Act, set to expire at the end of the year. “That’s going to impact people’s ability to pay their rent, and I do think that’s going to bring some impact to multi-family that we haven’t seen so far,” she says.
Serving customers during the pandemic had some banks scrambling to adopt new technology to serve customers; in contrast, Piermont was already positioning itself as a “tech-enabled” bank. “When it comes to innovation, I’m a big believer that it’s not only technology that we need to focus on, but also process,” says Cai-Lee. She aims to create an end-to-end digitized process without sacrificing on risk controls.
“I use technology to digitize everything that the client doesn’t see so that I can move all those resources to allow my bankers to spend the time with the client to find specific pain points” and identify the right solution, she explains. “This allows my bankers to engage the client very differently.” Piermont can close commercial loans in three days, she says, rather than a couple of weeks. And innovation isn’t limited to technology; Piermont offers subscription pricing for its services, for example, and recently announced a banking-as-a-service platform it’s offering through a partnership with Treasury Prime.
I spoke with Cai-Lee before that announcement. “We’re actually not going to be that anonymous bank behind these fintechs,” she says. “We’re actually going to market front and center along with the API partner so that we can actually focus on creating the right product for them.”
Piermont Bank also seeks to serve women- and minority-owned businesses, which have been particularly devastated by the pandemic and have historically lacked access to credit and investor capital. A lot of banks say they want to serve women and minority entrepreneurs, yet these groups remain underserved. When I ask how Cai-Lee’s plans differ from other institutions’ efforts, she credits Piermont’s diverse team.
Cai-Lee is Asian American; before founding Piermont, she led the commercial real estate, commercial lending, and consumer and business banking divisions at $50 billion, Pasadena, California-based East West Bancorp, which serves markets in the U.S. and China. Before that, she spent almost a decade at Deloitte, where she was literally the poster child for diversity. “They had a [life-size] cutout of me made and had it in the lobby of every Deloitte domestic office,” she recalls.
When she founded Piermont Bank, she prioritized adding a diverse array of voices and backgrounds when she assembled her team. She believes it’s a strength for the bank. “The reason why [women and minorities are] underserved is — no different from serving any industry or any demographic out there — unless you understand their pain points, it’s hard to come up with the right product and service to serve them,” says Cai-Lee. “If you don’t have enough representation of women, of minorities on your board and senior management [team], how do you foster an environment where [you can] address that demographic?”