On the Radar For the Pandemic’s Next Phase

The banking industry must address and satisfy several competing interests as executives and the workforce adjust to the new normal of life during a pandemic.

Banks across the nation have stepped up as leaders in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. Now as the dust settles from the initial shock in mid-March, what are issues that your bank should be prepared to address looking forward?

When and how should we reopen our physical locations?

While banks have continued operations during the pandemic, many limited their services. It is not clear when these services will fully ramp back up. As your bank debates the best course of action for your circumstance, consider the following:

  • Prioritize health and safety by installing physical protection at branches and offices, including sneeze guards at teller windows, medical screening of employees, enhanced cleaning procedures and required use of personal protective equipment.
  • When considering return-to-work policies, be flexible and responsive to employee concerns and location-specific issues.
  • Apply the lessons learned during this period and embrace (or even improve) the technology for working remotely.
  • Task teams with understanding federal, state and local requirements related to the pandemic and the bank’s corresponding compliance obligations. These teams should meet regularly to ensure full compliance at all locations.

The ABA published a free matrix to assist banks in their reopening efforts.

We participated in the Paycheck Protection Program; now what?

There are some important post-lending matters for banks that participated in the Paycheck Protection Program to consider:

Brace for litigation. Some banks have faced lawsuits from applicants that failed to receive PPP funding. While your bank may not be able to avoid a similar lawsuit, it should avoid liability in these suits by following established procedures and demonstrating that your bankers did not deny applicants on a prohibited basis (race, religion, gender, age, among others).

Additionally, banks have encountered complaints filed by agents of borrowers seeking lender fees. You should not face liability in these suits if you did not execute a binding agreement with an agent before loan origination. Your bank’s defense will be even stronger if you mitigated this issue on the front end —for example by requiring borrowers to certify whether they used an agent, and if so, requiring the agent to complete a Form 159.

Stay current on loan forgiveness requirements. The Small Business Administration stated that it would review all PPP loans over $2 million following each loan forgiveness application submission. Thankfully for lenders, banks can rely on borrower certifications on loan forgiveness amounts. Nevertheless, agencies continue to release new guidance, and customers will rely on lenders to help them through the process.

Look for new opportunities to serve your customers and communities. There are rumors that Congress may issue a third round of PPP funding that will apply to more eligible borrowers. The Federal Reserve announced the expansion of its Main Street Lending Program, which can be a valuable source of liquidity as banks seek to meet customer needs. The SBA also released guidance on the sale of participating interests in PPP loans.

What regulatory or supervisory concerns should we be prepared to address?

Credit Decisions. Your bank must continue to balance meeting customer needs and making prudent credit decisions in the current economic environment. Many banks have started tightening credit standards, but this comes with a potential uptick in complaints about harmful lending practices. Regulators have indicated that they will scrutinize lending activity to ensure banks comply with applicable laws and meet customer needs in a safe and sound manner. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency urged banks to “prudently document” their PPP lending decisions. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau instructed small business owners “who believe they were discriminated against based on race, sex, or other protected category” to file complaints. Your decisions on credit parameters must be well thought out and applied uniformly.

Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money laundering Focus. Banks may face heightened risks from new customers or new activities from existing customers. For the first time since 2014, the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council released updates to the Bank Secrecy Act/Anti-Money Laundering (BSA/AML) examination manual. While these updates are not directly related to the pandemic, regulators may scrutinize BSA/AML efforts at your next examination. Use this updated guidance as a springboard to assess your BSA/AML compliance program now.

IT and Security Concerns. Banks used technology enabling virtual or remote interactions during the pandemic, increasing risks associated with IT security. The regulators issued a joint statement addressing security risk management, noting that bank management cannot rely on third-party service providers and must actively ensure technological security. Expect this to be an area of focus at your next examination.

The Covid-19 Shift

For many companies, the Covid-19 pandemic necessitated rapid change. Microsoft Corp. CEO Satya Nadella noted in late April, “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months,” due to the speedy adoption and implementation of new technology by the U.S. business sector to better serve customers and keep employees working safely during the crisis. 

Navigating the short-term impacts of these shifts has bankers working round-the-clock to keep pace, but the long-term effects could differentiate the companies that take advantage of this extraordinary moment to pivot their operations. This transformation makes up the core of the discussions taking place at Microsoft’s Envision Virtual Forum for Financial Services. As part of that event, Bank Director CEO Al Dominick virtually sat down with Luke Thomas, Microsoft’s managing director, U.S. banking and financial providers, to discuss how financial institutions can use this opportunity to modernize their operations.

They address:

  • Accelerated Adoption of Technology
  • Legacy vs. New Core Providers
  • Ensuring Continued Improvement

Texas Strong: Banks Contend With Dual Threats

“Texas has four seasons: drought, flood, blizzard and twister.” – Anonymous

To that list of afflictions you can add two more — the Covid-19 pandemic and a catastrophic collapse in global oil prices, creating double trouble for the Lone Star State.

There were over 50,500 coronavirus cases in Texas through May 20, an average of 174 per 100,000 people, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. There were nearly 1,400 coronavirus-related deaths in the state.

In mid-March, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott imposed restrictions that limited social gatherings to 10 people or less, and effectively closed close-proximity businesses like restaurants and bars, health clubs and tattoo parlors. Even as Abbott reopens the state’s economy, many of its small businesses have already been hurt, along with many lodging and entertainment concerns.

Shutting down the economy was probably a good health decision,” says F. Scott Dueser, chairman and CEO at $9.7 billion First Financial Bankshares in Abilene, Texas. “It wasn’t a good economic decision.”

And then there’s oil situation. An oil price war between two major producers — Russia and Saudi Arabia — helped drive down the price of West Texas Intermediate crude from over $60 per barrel in January to less than $12 in late April, before rebounding to approximately $32 currently.

Texas still runs on oil; while it is less dependent on the energy sector than in past cycles, its importance “permeates” the state’s economy, according to Dueser. “It is a major industry and is of great concern for all of us,” he says.

The 65-year-old Dueser has been First Financial’s CEO since 2008, and guided the bank successfully through the Great Recession. “I thought I’d be retired by the next recession but unfortunately, we weren’t planning on a pandemic and it has come faster than I thought,” Dueser says.

This downturn could be as bad or worse as the last one. But so far, damage to First Financial’s profitability from the combined effects of the pandemic and cheap oil has been minor. The bank’s first quarter earnings were off just 2.6% year over year, to $37 million. Like most banks, First Financial has negotiated loan modifications with many of its commercial borrowers that defer repayment of principal and/or interest for 90 days.

Dueser won’t know until the expiration of those agreements how many borrowers can begin making payments, and for how much — clouding the bank’s risk exposure for now. But with a Tier 1 capital ratio over 19%, Dueser has the comfort of a fortress balance sheet.

“We unfortunately have been down this road before … and capital is king because it’s what gets you through these times,” he says.

Dueser made a decision early in the pandemic that as much as possible, the bank would remain open for business. It encouraged customers to use branch drive-thru lanes, but lobbies have remained open as well.

“So far we have been very successful here at the bank in staying open, not locking our doors, not limiting hours, keeping our people safe and at the same time serving more customers than we ever have in the history of the bank,” Dueser says.     

The bank has followed Covid-19 safety requirements from the Center for Disease Control. “The most important things are don’t let your people come to work sick and social distancing,” Dueser says. “We split every department, such as technology, phone center, treasury management and so on with having half the department work from home or from another one of our locations. That way we had only half the people here, which allowed us to put people in every other desk or cubicle.”

To date, the bank has had only four Covid-19 cases among its employees. “Thankfully, all four of those individuals are healthy and back at work,” Dueser says. “With each situation we learn more on how to protect our employees and customers.”

Dueser is one of 39 people on a task force appointed by Abbott to advise him on reopening the state’s economy. “I am very supportive of what he is doing, in the fact that we are getting the state back open,” he says. “The virus is not winning the war, which is good. We have a lot to learn so that we can live with the virus without having to go home and hide in a closet.”

One of Dueser’s biggest priorities through the economic hardship was to make sure retail and commercial customers knew that it would stand by them, come what may. That led to a recent marketing campaign designed around the phrase “Texas Strong,” a slogan used throughout the state that traces back to Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Houston in 2017.

“We want our customers to know that we’re safe, sound and strong,” says Will Christoferson, the bank’s senior vice president for advertising and marketing. “What’s stronger than Texas? We couldn’t think of anything.”

Coronavirus Ushers Banks Into New Digital Banking Era

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced dramatic changes in the U.S. economy at a breakneck speed that seemed impossible only a few short months ago.

The banking industry has risen to the challenge, managing more than a million applications for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, modifying countless loan terms, deferring payments and redesigning the customer experience to minimize in-branch foot traffic — all while shifting a significant portion of operations to employees’ home offices.   

We are in uncharted territory. The business decisions your bank is making now impact your institution’s ability to meet customers where they are today, but also where they expect you to be in the future. The digital bridge you build for online account opening can help take you there.

Even before most of us learned the term “coronavirus,” few banks would have disagreed with the need to automate digital account opening and invest in systems to support the online customer experience. Your institution may have already identified this as a strategic objective for 2020. And even if you already offer the service, shutdowns and closures stemming from Covid-19 may have highlighted friction in the account opening experience that either previously lacked visibility or was considered acceptable for the limited number of customers who took advantage of it. With customers now primarily directed toward a digital channel, you should reconsider the metrics used to define a satisfactory user experience.

The right channel. Online account opening may have been one of several customer channels your bank offered, but it may not have been marketed as the primary or best channel — especially when compared to the high-touch experience of in-person banking. It’s become clear, though, that a digital model that complements, and works cohesively with, a branch model is necessary to meet customers where they are. The steps you take to cultivate online account opening as the right channel for your bank should also establish the hallmarks of a preferred user experience.

An end-to-end strategy. Do your customers need to visit a branch or make a phone call to complete application paperwork? Does your solution provide for safe digital identity verification? Does it support electronic signing? Are your account opening documents optimized for viewing on mobile devices? An online account opening strategy that does not consider these questions will likely reduce efficiency, resulting in a poor user experience that may cause customers to abandon the account opening process before completing it.

Continuing the relationship. Online service must be full service and seamlessly dovetail with your in-person customer model. Offering an online account opening experience that then requires a phone call or a branch trip to manage name or address changes is the sort of partial digital transformation that unnecessarily complicates customer service. Online account maintenance must have the option to be fully driven by customers as an embedded component of your online account experience. Fully embracing a well-conceived online strategy will include opportunities for marketing and cross-selling as part of the digital maintenance experience. If your bank cannot fully service customer needs remotely, they may seek institutions that better address their banking usability preferences.

Continuing the investment. Investment priorities for your organization have undoubtedly been revisited two, potentially three, times in the last few months. Use these opportunities to reevaluate your digital delivery model and the technology that supports it. Technology that speeds up identity verification processes and solutions that support the digital signing of mobile-optimized documents are critical components of your digital architecture that will reduce friction for your customers as they move through the online process.

You have already made vast changes to your operating model to meet the needs of your customers during very trying times. Now is the time to maximize your return on those changes and continue developing your digital strategy.

How Peoples Bancorp Prevailed Through PPP

“You only learn who has been swimming naked when the tide goes out,” wrote Warren Buffett in his 2004 annual letter.

He was referring to operations that trade derivatives. You don’t really know the value of what you hold in opaque markets, he explained, until it’s tested in hard times.

The same can be said about banking.

Rarely has the industry faced an environment as acute as today.

The scope and speed of this downturn are without modern precedent,” said Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell earlier this week. It’s “significantly worse than any recession since World War II.”

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that bankers bear much of the burden of saving the economy from oblivion. “If doctors and nurses are first responders to those who are sick,” says Robyn Stevens, chief credit officer at Peoples Bancorp, “bankers are the first responders for businesses, communities and economies.”

Stevens would know.

Within its three-state footprint spanning Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky, Peoples was the top-performing bank in the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program measured by dollars of PPP loans approved per assets.

“A culture is tested when times get tough,” says Ryan Kirkham, general counsel at the $4.5 billion bank based in Marietta, Ohio. “You find out whether it is real or just lip service. We passed the test.”

The success of Peoples in the first round of PPP reveals a flaw in one of the principal narratives that has emerged from the unfolding crisis — that banks with the most advanced technology were the ones best positioned to manage the onslaught of loan applications.

It’s not that Peoples Bank hasn’t invested in technology in recent years, because it has. But the secret to its success in the first round of PPP was simple elbow grease.

Personnel from the top of the bank to the bottom volunteered to enter data into the Small Business Administration portal to process customer loan applications.

“Banks had to decide whether they were going to do it automated or whether they were going to do it manually,” says CEO Chuck Sulerzyski. “Peoples tried an automated approach but then opted for manual.”

“Many of our most senior executives have done data entry until 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 at night,” he adds. “We did over 100 of these loans on Easter Sunday. And when they shut banks over $1 billion out from 6 p.m. to midnight one evening, we had a couple dozen people volunteer to work midnight to 4 a.m. putting in the entries.”

This success reflects a culmination of a decade’s worth of effort, spearheaded by Sulerzyski, who joined the bank from KeyCorp in 2011.

The 62-year-old CEO spent the previous four decades working up the corporate ladder at multiple prominent banks. He worked at Citibank during the Walter Wriston era. He was at Chemical Bank when Walter Shipley was CEO. And he spent eight years at Bank One, working closely with President Don McWhorter and CEO John B. McCoy.

Sulerzyski has been there and done that, in other words. One lesson he’s learned along the way has been the importance of culture and customer relationships. It’s a lesson that has paid off in spades over the past three months.

“From a competitive standpoint, a lot of the large banks struggled with PPP,” Sulerzyski says. “One of the large regionals couldn’t do any loans the first few days. Another one started, but then had to shut down. Each of the bigger banks we compete against had their own degree of difficulties with this. Because our customers were well taken care of, CPAs and attorneys started referring business to us and it kind of snowballed on itself.”

Sulerzyski’s team speaks in single voice on this.

Our commitment to our communities and the importance that plays resonates with our employees,” says Thomas Frawley, senior vice president, consumer lending. “They start the call as a banker and end the call as a counselor, listening to the fears of our customers while assuring them that we are going to do our best to help them.”

“We have several associates who are working day and night,” says Ann Helmick, director of enterprise risk management. “They are doing this for the good of the client. For most, there will not be a personal gain.”

“It is easy to come up with a mission, vision and values. And when times are good, it can be easy to live by those values,” says Jason Phipps, regional president. “It is when a company or person faces adversity that you find out who a person or who an organization really is.”

One can argue all day long about the importance of scale and technology, and how it could soon be a principle competitive differentiator in banking. But technology is only a tool to help bankers ply their trade. The soul of any organization, and the true source of performance, lies instead in the people who run it.

“Bankers may have got a bad rap during the last crisis,” says Stevens, “but ours have been heroes during this one!”

Coronavirus Considerations for Goodwill Impairment

Given the recent impact of Covid-19 on the economy, unemployment and operations, discussions around potential goodwill impairment — and the related testing — is a hot topic for many financial institutions as the March 31 quarter ended.

Goodwill is defined as an asset representing the future economic benefits arising from other assets acquired in a business combination. Financial institutions record goodwill as a result of a merger or an acquisition. Accounting Standards Codification (ASC) 350, Intangibles – Goodwill and Other, states that entities must evaluate their goodwill for impairment at least annually. However, during interim periods, a goodwill impairment analysis could be necessary if the entity has an indication that the fair value of a reporting unit has fallen below carrying value, defined by the guidance as a triggering event. Determining whether a triggering event has occurred is challenging for many financial institutions.

Under the guidance of ASC 350, impairment testing for goodwill is required annually and upon a triggering event. Private entities electing the accounting alternative are only required to test upon a triggering event. Here are some examples of goodwill triggering events, according to ASC 350-20-35:

Macroeconomic conditions: deterioration in general economic conditions, limitations on accessing capital, fluctuations in foreign exchange rates or other developments in equity and credit markets. 

Industry and market considerations: deterioration in the environment in which an entity operates, an increased competitive environment, a decline in market-dependent multiples or metrics (consider in both absolute terms and relative to peers), a change in the market for an entity’s products or services, or a regulatory or political development. 

Overall financial performance: negative or declining cash flows, or a decline in actual or planned revenue or earnings compared with actual and projected results of relevant prior periods.

Other entity-specific events: changes in management, key personnel, strategy or customers; contemplation of bankruptcy or litigation.

Events affecting a reporting unit: a change in the composition or carrying amount of its net assets, a highly probable expectation of selling or disposing of all, or a portion, of a reporting unit, the testing for recoverability of a significant asset group within a reporting unit, or recognition of a goodwill impairment loss in the financial statements of a subsidiary that is a component of a reporting unit.

A sustained decrease in share price: to be considered in both absolute terms and relative to peers.

It is clear that Covid-19 has global impacts on some macroeconomic conditions. Financial institutions may want to assess whether they have experienced a triggering event; if they conclude there has been such an event, they will need to proceed to a goodwill impairment test. Assessing whether there has been a triggering event, as defined by ASC 350, involves judgment.

When it comes to a decline in stock price, the guidance in ASC 350 does not define what “sustained” means. In isolation, a decrease in share price is not an automatic indicator of a triggering event. The guidance suggests comparing the relative decrease to peers — if it is consistent among the industry, one may conclude that the decrease is related to general economic events and not specific to the institution individually. Banks may determine that an overall decline in the market could be indicative of macroeconomic conditions that impact the value of the company. Entities should consider forecasts and projections to determine whether the situation is expected to be temporary, and the reduction in stock price is reflective of short-term market volatility rather than a long-term, sustained decline in fair value.

The guidance does not suggest that the existence of one negative factor results in a triggering event. Rather, the guidance requires companies to assess various factors to determine whether it is probable that the company’s fair value is less than its carrying value. One way to consider the factors mentioned in the guidance is to weight them by their impact on the entity’s fair value. If the company concludes that a triggering event has occurred, then an impairment analysis should be performed to determine if in fact goodwill is impaired.

The determination of a triggering event, or lack thereof, involves judgment; management’s analysis and conclusion should be thoroughly documented. As the economic environment and resulting impacts of Covid-19 continue to shift and evolve, companies should revisit goodwill impairment triggers on a regular basis.

Best Practices for Virtual Board Meetings

Dallas Kayser, the chairman at $5.1 billion City Holding Co. in Charleston, West Virginia, says his board has essentially been “on call” throughout the coronavirus crisis, with more frequent board and executive committee meetings to discuss issues like how the bank will offer small business customers the Paycheck Protection Program loans launched under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, & Economic Security (CARES) Act.

But given the nature of the pandemic, which has shut down many sectors of the U.S. economy, directors aren’t meeting face-to-face in the boardroom. Instead, they’re meeting virtually. 

Covid-19 has quickly changed how boards conduct their business.

Meeting virtually isn’t new. We’ve had the technology for years, and many boards already had some sort of virtual attendance option in place for far-flung directors — snowbirds, for example, or those more distantly located from the bank’s headquarters. The difference now? “This is the first and only time we’ve all 100% been forced to do it, if we want to meet. That’s why it feels new,”  says Dottie Schindlinger, the executive director of Diligent Institute, part of governance software provider Diligent Corp.

As boards have quickly learned, there are important considerations to keep in mind when meeting virtually. Bank Director compiled the following checklist, based on conversations with industry experts, for your board’s consideration as it navigates this shift.

1. Establish ground rules.
First, the board should understand how state laws and other regulations govern virtual board meetings, including how it will impact procedures like establishing a quorum and voting. Also, review the board’s policies and bylaws to see if they should be updated for meeting virtually.

You’ll also want to consider how the technology used by the board impacts seemingly simple matters like minutes and roll call. If the board is using an audio-only format, a roll call will be necessary. It will also be important for directors to introduce themselves before speaking, to ensure accurate minutes.

The board should also weigh the pros and cons of audio versus video technology. Many find discussions more productive through video, due to the ability to pick up on others’ visual cues.

However, using video raises new questions that boards will have to consider. Should someone record the meeting? Should directors be required to use web cams, so everyone can see one another? Should directors be encouraged to use headsets, to ensure conversations are private? And if the bank’s staff runs the technology, how can the board meet in executive session?

And it’s important to understand any technology needs directors may have now that they’re logging in from their homes. The iPad the bank purchased a few years ago may not be able to run the latest and greatest video-conferencing solution. Also, someone at the bank will need to serve as “tech support” as the board gets used to this new way of meeting.

2. Rethink the agenda.
Consider shorter, more frequent meetings, and focus the agenda on the critical issues that the board needs to discuss at that time. Ensure materials are received in advance to allow sufficient time to review, as directors can’t spend time catching up during the shorter meetings. And clearly define roles in advance, if needed. Who will lead the discussion on a particular issue? Who will take minutes?

Also, wrap up the meeting by reviewing the key items discussed and items that require further action, recommends Denise Kuprionis, the president of The Governance Solutions Group.

And sometimes, old-school methods work. Kayser at City Holding prints out the agenda, so he can check off items as they’re discussed.

3. The role of the facilitator could evolve.
The chair or lead director should make a more concerted effort to engage every director. Everyone’s voice should be heard.

Kuprionis recommends keeping a list of all board members at hand, so no one’s forgotten. “You’re listening to a conversation, you’re participating [and] you get caught up,” she says. “If you have that list in front of you … it helps you remember who’s not there.”

Also, be emboldened to speak up when someone’s dominating the conversation. It’s easy in face-to-face meetings for a single individual to do this; the problem is compounded when visual cues have been removed. Discuss — as a board — how these directors can be reined in. One solution Schindlinger recommends is time limits. When one director has spoken for a predetermined time limit, the chair can interrupt or mute that individual, and move on to request input from other board members.

For more on facilitating effective meetings, read “A Roadmap for Productive Board Discussions.”

4. Ensure secure communications.
Not all formats provide the security boards need, so that should be considered as specific technologies are reviewed. Are passwords required? Is there a waiting room feature, so guests — like executives — can be held outside the meeting until the board is ready?

You’ll also want to wean directors off paper packets, or at least talk with some directors about how to access and print their materials securely. Don’t discuss board business via email, says Schindlinger. “You know the old adage, ‘never waste a good crisis?’ Well, hackers have really taken that to heart. They are looking for opportunities to exploit all of us right now, because we’re vulnerable,” she says. We’re stressed about the pandemic and the economy, cooped up in our houses and spending more time online. “This is not the time to send out stuff via email.”

Also, consider how side conversations will be managed. While Schindlinger says assigning a “board buddy” can be helpful to new directors trying to gain a grasp of the board’s culture, those conversations should be secure — not through text or email. Board portals like Diligent or Nasdaq’s Director’s Desk, which is used at City Holding, allow directors to conduct one-on-one exchanges safely.

Virtual board meetings could become part of the new normal that emerges out of the Covid-19 crisis. It may be awhile before we’re all ready to convene in groups and what’s more, some directors may like the experience. Kayser sees benefits in saving travel and time, along with the ability to schedule discussions on short notice. However, he also feels that discussions on deeper issues — an acquisition, for example — could be challenging.

Boards have an opportunity now to figure out how to make virtual meetings work. “There are no playbooks about this stuff right now,” says Schindlinger. “The right answer is going to be the right answer for your board. Your board is going to come up with the right ideas and vote those in. Just have the conversation.”

The Best Way To Increase Digital Deposits

Consumers have come to expect the ability to do banking — and a wide range of other activities — online. These expectations are only likely to grow with the Covid-19 pandemic.

While some banks have offered online services for some time, many others may be rethinking their strategy as they consider options that might help them grow market share beyond their traditional or geographically limited service areas. After all, digital banking has the potential to draw deposits and service loans from a broader pool of potential customers. As banks of all sizes contend with margin compression and increased competition, one of the easiest and most expeditious ways to cut costs is through the use of technology.

As banks work to increase deposits in an increasingly digital world, they have the opportunity to take different, sometimes divergent, approaches to connecting with audiences and compelling them to become customers. Two key strategies are:

  • Establishing a digital branch — a digital version of an existing branch
  • Launching an entirely new digital bank, with an entirely different look and feel from the existing brand

There is no right approach as long as banks are meeting customers’ digital needs. Each bank should pursue an approach that incorporates their brand, their core strategies and their target audiences. But small community banks don’t have to be hampered by the lack of big budgets or deep pockets when providing excellent experiences to their customers and fuel consistent growth, though. By leveraging truly optimized digital capabilities, community banks can grow faster and at a low cost.

Extending the Brand Name
There’s great value in brand loyalty. Many community banks have long-standing positive relationships; strong brand awareness and loyalty are firmly established within the communities they serve. When doubling down on offering online services, leveraging its existing brand name can help the bank establish immediate awareness and preference for its services.

Leveraging the existing brand name can be a less-costly undertaking, since new logos, branding platforms, key messages and marketing collateral don’t need to be established.

The potential downside? When reaching into new markets, an existing brand name may not have enough awareness to compete against the large, national, online brands. Fortunately, the online landscape offers even very small community banks the opportunity to build a very large footprint. To do that, some are launching new brands designed to reach an entirely new target audience.

Launching a New Online Brand
Reaching a new audience is one of the biggest benefits for banks that launch a new online brand. It also creates an opportunity to shift the bank’s image if the existing brand has not been strong or does not convey the modern, nimble image that tends to appeal to younger audiences.

The drawbacks, though, include the costs of creating a new brand, both in terms of time and money with no certainty or guarantee that the new brand will gain traction in the market. In addition, launching a new brand relinquishes any opportunity to leverage any existing brand equity. Operational planning and related costs may also be higher, given the likelihood that some positions and services will be duplicated between physical and online branches.

Still, community banks should carefully consider both options in light of their unique positioning, strategies and goals. While both approaches represent some level of risk, they also provide specific benefits that can be capitalized on to grow market share and revenue. We’ve worked with banks in both camps that have seen incredible growth and gained operational efficiencies well beyond their goals.

No matter the approach, when it comes to digital banking, it’s imperative to have clear objectives, buy-in from all stakeholders, focused resources to make it happen, and partners that can provide guidance and best-practices along the way.

Guarding Against Virtual Viruses in a Pandemic

As healthcare experts work to mitigate the Covid-19 pandemic, the banking industry is faced with fighting other viruses.

Cyber attackers are known to be opportunistic, pouncing during times of anxiety and uncertainty. Rest assured, they won’t let up once the coronavirus has run its course. While information technology directors are focusing their attention on processing huge volumes of Small Business Administration loans and assisting bankers working remotely for the first time, computer virus and malware threats continue to rise. If not handled effectively, this could threaten the security of the financial system.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cautions that Americans need to prepare for the possibility that Covid-19 could return — or even become a seasonal disease. With such prospects, savvy bank directors should familiarize themselves with their institutions’ data security and technology infrastructure. Here are six points to consider when assessing the future of their bank’s information security system:

Look again at business continuity plans. While your bank may have one, it likely did not consider the immediate worldwide demands for laptops and network hardware needed to configure remote work capabilities. Nor did these plans likely consider supply chain interruptions when factories shut down in Asia, where the virus was first detected. The lesson: If you wait until the next global emergency occurs, you might be too late. Plan now.

Consider the increased risk with more employees working remotely. The larger the inventory — coupled with less control of who uses the computer — the tougher it is to protect. An even more concerning practice is allowing bank employees to use personal computers to access bank networks. Firewalls, spam filters, anti-virus software and other security measures should not be determined by individual employees.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has issued guidance related to remote work and defending against Covid-19 scams. One of their tips is to ensure virtual private networks, or VPNs, have the latest software package and configurations, and that current anti-virus software is installed and up-to-date. Multi-factor authentication is another must-have for protecting your bank’s network.

Make sure you have enough IT support. Even before Covid-19, there were not enough qualified technical staff to fill available positions. The increased demand for remote connectivity has further stretched IT departments. Make sure your technology departments are fully staffed, or have access qualified outside help.

Be sure employees are hyper-vigilant. Attackers hope that more distance between coworkers will equate to guards being lowered. Ensure that employees are regularly reminded of social engineering, email and other current threats to increase top-of-mind awareness of cyber security.

Be aware that some attacks are physical. We typically think of cyberattacks occurring “invisibly,” through system networks and software. But at least one entity is now mass-mailing infected “free” USB drives to financial institutions. Remind employees to discard any hardware that comes from unknown sources.

Consider the benefits of cloud technology. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal described how remote-work capabilities could become more common as money tightens and daily operations need more flexibility. Cloud computing is both more efficient and flexible, and is easily scalable. Bank regulators have taken notice, saying that outsourcing such technologies gives banks more options.

Time will tell, but this may be a turning point for American business. As more workers have established a routine for working from home — and have found surprising levels of efficiency and productivity — it’s expected that this could become more of the norm, at least in the near term.

Some in the financial services industry have been slow to change; they may now be forced to out of necessity. It’s incumbent upon directors to champion for this flexibility and resiliency by ensuring their data security and information infrastructure is ready to handle it.

How One Bank CEO is Navigating the Covid-19 Pandemic

Like most of his peers throughout the banking industry, Dennis Shaffer, the CEO at Sandusky, Ohio-based Civista Bancshares, is confronting challenges unlike anything he has faced in his long career.

The Covid-19 pandemic is ravaging the U.S. economy, leading to the highest levels of unemployment since the Great Depression and a likely recession of unknown depth and duration. That is forcing CEOs like Shaffer to make decisions about sustainability and workforce deployment that were unimaginable six months ago.

The $2.5 billion bank serves a three-state area that spans big chunks of Ohio as well as southeastern Indiana and northern Kentucky. Civista’s profitability has already been impacted by the pandemic: Net income in the first quarter was down nearly 18%, to $7.8 million year over year.

But Shaffer says the bank’s mortgage loan originations are at record levels and several construction projects that it financed prior to the pandemic are still going forward. The bank processed 2,141 loans under the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program, totaling $262 million. Shaffer estimates that over 300 of those loans were to new and very grateful customers that could lead to expanded business relationships in the future.

Civista has also reached out to borrowers that have been hard hit by the downturn and offered them 90-day loan modifications. In the first quarter, the bank modified 66 loans totaling $39.9 million, according to its first quarter earnings report. These were primarily deferral of principal and/or interest payments. Since March 31, it has received requests to modify an additional 727 loans totaling $410 million.

“The bank’s doing fine,” he says. “Our main emphasis has been keeping our customers and employees healthy and also continue to do business as normal as possible for our customers.”

The biggest challenge that Shaffer and other bank CEOs face today is economic uncertainty. If he knew how deep and long the recession will be, Shaffer could better estimate the impact that will have on Civista’s balance sheet.

This is my 35th year in banking and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “We’ve gone through recessions where a business goes from making $1 to maybe 70 cents. Well here, they’ve gone from $1 to some of these businesses making nothing.”

Shaffer faced up to that challenge by taking a hard look at the bank’s capital structure and factoring in nightmarish projections.

He started with evaluating whether Civista had enough capital to sustain losses that could be at “historical levels.” During the last recession, the bank sustained $54 million in losses over a four-year period. In his analysis, Shaffer decided to double that — and compress four years to two. He also assumed the bank would continue paying its dividend and wouldn’t lay off employees.

After they factored in all those assumptions, “we were still above 8% on a Tier 1 [capital] basis, so we feel pretty good about that,” he says. The mandated regulatory minimum is 6%, which would give the bank the capacity to absorb even more losses, although Shaffer hopes to avoid falling that low. That analysis gave Shaffer confidence that Civista could take a hard punch in the recession and still carry on. It also answered the question of whether the bank need to raise additional capital.

“We felt we didn’t need to,” he says. “We think we’re really strongly capitalized. I think our stress testing has proved that.”

Shaffer believes the loan modifications and Paycheck Protection loans have bought many of Civista’s customers valuable time, but he won’t know yet for a couple of months how many of those businesses will sustain themselves through the pandemic. “Sales [won’t be] 100%, but are they going to be 90% or are they going to be 50%?” he says.

Another challenge Shaffer has encountered is running the bank with a distributed workforce. Seventy percent of Civista’s employees are working from home, most of them since early March. (Shaffer comes to the office every day because he feels he needs to be visible to the employees working there.) While he had some apprehensions at first, he’s pleased with the bank’s productivity.

Still, Shaffer has to decide when to bring most of those people back into the office. Ohio has already begun to reopen its economy, but he intends to normalize the bank’s operations more gradually. Civista’s branch lobbies have been closed since March ­— just the drive-through lanes are readily accessible — and Shaffer plans to maintain the status quo through May and perhaps extend it through June.

He also doesn’t see an immediate need to repatriate the majority of Civista’s office employees. “We’ll phase that in and probably do that gradually,” Shaffer says. As other businesses with more pressing needs bring their people back, the bank can afford to wait.

“I just think it benefits the greater community because it eliminates more people coming back into the workforce,” he says. “We can do our part there.”