Community Banks Show Their Shine

Jason E. Kaplan
Jenny Bennett, left, and Craig Wanichek of Summit Bank in Eugene

The COVID-19 recession shows why small, local banks are vital to small, local businesses.

Share this article!

Jenny Bennett, senior vice president of Summit Bank in Eugene, described the surreal experience of staying up all night by the fax machine, fielding questions from clients as she waited for their Paycheck Protection Program loans to be approved.

“It’s a trip thinking about that time,” says Bennett, who worked to secure her clients’ PPP loans while Sacha Baron Cohen filmed Borat Subsequent Moviefilm down the street.

“We pulled several all-nighters. For our clients, this money meant their livelihoods. Some of the larger banks made automated systems, but we did each individual application by hand.”

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, regulatory restrictions placed on banks led to market fundamentals favoring larger banks, which were able to comply more easily. Given a larger client base, big-box financial institutions win big during times of economic prosperity. As a result, larger banks have used the upswinging economy to buy up smaller banks en masse. But the COVID-19 recession has demonstrated why small banks — able to offer more responsive, personalized service — shine during times of uncertainty.

“When the pandemic started, we talked to every single one of our loan clients about what they needed. Even our clients who couldn’t get PPP loans through Summit, we worked with [them] to find another bank,” says Craig Wanichek, president of Summit Bank. “At the height of the pandemic many of our clients were struggling. Now we are down to only a handful. We had a number of clients who had their best year ever. Community banks punched way above our weight class.”

A quarterly report by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation said community banks have fared particularly well during the pandemic. The Treasury Department has also taken note of community banking’s nimble response to coronavirus. In June Vice President Kamala Harris and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen announced the Community Development Financial Institutions Rapid Response Program, which would provide $1.25 billion in COVID-19 relief funds to 863 community development financial institutions in areas that need immediate economic assistance.

The economy still has not entirely recovered from the COVID-19 recession. With more virus variants, natural disasters and government-assistance programs potentially on the way, some businesses have decided to make the switch.

“We added a lot of clients through the PPP process because they saw what we could do. Larger banks had a tough time getting all the processes set up in a short period of time,” says Jeff Sumpter, CEO of Lewis & Clark Bank in Oregon City and chair of Oregon Bankers Association. “COVID-19 really put an exclamation point on our value.”

At Summit Bank, loan demand has never been higher. For Bennett, the COVID-19 experience serves as a reminder of why community banking is more than just a job.

“People often see banking as this dry, boring thing, but community banking has taught me so much about how to live a good life and be a good person. We get to live in the places we serve and see the positive effects of our work,” says Bennett.

To subscribe to Oregon Business, click here