Farmers Is Top Community Bank in Region for PPP

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Once the dust settled on the Paycheck Protection Program and approved businesses got their loans, bankers nationwide gave a sigh of relief. Through countless guidance updates from the Small Business Administration and Treasury Department, through revision to applications and through an application system that crashed early and often in the first few days of the program, some banks took extra measures to get their customers’ applications in.

“There was so much volume in those first few days that it was really tough to get deals through. So we ended up going off hours to get things through,” says Farmers National Bank President Kevin Helmick. “It was a career-defining experience for a lot of our bankers.”

For his bank, the work paid off. The final Paycheck Protection Program figures for Farmers put it among the top banks in the region and the state. In northeastern Ohio, it was the No. 1 community bank for the number of PPP loans processed and the No. 8 bank overall. Among all banks, it ranked 15th in the state.

Over the four months the program was available, Farmers funded 1,718 PPP loans totaling just over $200 million. In Helmick’s estimation, those loans helped businesses to protect roughly 25,000 jobs.

“We’ve seen a few articles regionally and nationally about how community banks stepped up,” he says. “That’s something we’ve always prided ourselves on. We look at our stakeholder base and we want to focus on the small businesses because they’re so important to the local and regional economies.”

Getting those results, he continues, didn’t task the bank with anything particularly new. Its Small Business Express program, which combines automated processes and bankers to underwrite commercial loans under $400,000, typically took a day to approve. With that system in place, it was a fairly easy pivot to getting through the flood of PPP applications.

“That group is used to working at that pace with that level of detail. They drove the process for the PPP and they’re our unsung heroes in Farmers’ pandemic story,” Helmick says.

But as a community bank – and a small business itself – there were other tools at Farmers’ disposal as well. By belonging to several state and national associations, the bank had an information network it could tap into when questions arose, as they often did in the early days of the Paycheck Protection Program. Farmers had also built a rapport with its customers that kept bankers in touch with them even outside a pandemic.

With those abilities already well in hand, once the program started the first Friday in April, it didn’t take long to get customers ready and have their applications submitted.

“Once it appeared banks would be instrumental, they were on top of things from the beginning. It was almost as we were getting ready to reach out to them. They were reaching out to us,” says Daniel “Bud” Santon, president of Santon Electric. “Whenever we had an inquiry, they’d get back to us. … They knew the rumors and had a better inkling than we did of how guidance would be changed.”

That early communication helped Window World of Youngstown get its loan application mostly prepared by the time the Paycheck Protection Program launched on April 3, says President Fred Moran.

“When it finally came to fruition, from what information we had already been given by Farmers, we were prepared and ready to go,” he says. “It opened on Friday and our application was in no later than the next Monday. I’m thankful that they were on top of it and able to give us enough solid information as to what would be required.”

With the early preparation, Window World had its funding within a week of the program’s launch and has retained its workers at its seven Ohio sites, although the stores in Pennsylvania and Michigan remained closed because of state shutdown orders.

“In Youngstown, Steubenville, Akron/Canton and Cleveland, we were able to operate. The funds were well used,” he says. “We made it clear that if we were going to bring people back, it was going to be full-time with all their benefits. And we did. We didn’t lose a single person.”

Both businesses have worked with Farmers before.

Santon Electric is a longtime commercial customer and Window World went through the Canfield-based bank for business checking and to finance an expansion at its headquarters on Southern Boulevard. Existing customers like them made up the bulk of Farmers’ PPP loans, Helmick says, accounting for more than three-quarters of its volume.

For borrowers new to the Farmers system, the companies and nonprofits got follow-up visits over the summer to discuss other products, such  as deposit accounts, wealth and trust management, and insurance lines.

“Taking care of everyone quickly and partnering with them through the process was important to us,” Helmick says. “They may not be a Farmers customer today. But we  hope they remember and they choose us.” 

In some cases, the noncustomers inquiring about PPP loans with Farmers were those that didn’t have luck at other institutions, he adds. Even without hard data on how many initial calls came in from noncustomers, Helmick notes that he personally got calls from business leaders who weren’t customers asking about the process.

“This is anecdotal, but I had customers calling me with questions. Normally, commercial customers know exactly where to go and who to talk to,” he says. “If there was money to be had from the PPP, regardless of the amount, we felt it incumbent upon us to get out there and help a business get it.”

Having those kinds of connections was a two-way street, benefiting both the bank and customers who may not have had as long of a history with Farmers as Santon Electric.

At Ursuline Ministries, two executive vice presidents of the bank serve on agency boards: Amber Wallace, chief retail and marketing officer, on the board of Beatitude House and Mark Graham, special assets analyst, on the board of the Ursuline Center. Once Ursuline Ministries realized it would need a PPP loan to weather the pandemic, its president, Brigid Kennedy, reached out to Graham, who connected them with a banker.

“He flipped it over to Greg Ensley, who took it from there and worked around the clock to get our application through. There were some starts and stops as [the SBA] changed guidance. But they stayed on top of it,” Kennedy says.

While other banks eventually reached out to Kennedy about securing a PPP loan, she says the calls came after the loan from Farmers had been approved and funded. Going through a community bank, she says, was crucial to keeping the nonprofit’s operations up and running.

“In this program, you had to have the attention of the banker,” she says. “These are people who live in the community with us and understand the needs of our  customers. … Being able to turn to them for things like governance or volunteering are things that need to be personal and local and reflective of the needs of our community. They can’t be cookie cutter or abstract things that come with working with someone out of Omaha or Baton Rouge.”

Throughout the time the Paycheck Protection Program was open, Helmick says, Farmers found its success in doing what it’s always done. That success extends beyond just the PPP loans. Farmers’ mortgage team has tripled its volume over last year, he says, with the same number of full-time equivalents.

And just up the road from its downtown Canfield headquarters, the bank opened its new Lab Branch, where it will roll out technologies that could eventually make their way into other branches.

“At the end of the day, being a community bank and punching above our weight class when it comes to things like PPP, technology or wealth management is important. When people talk about a community bank, you usually hear about service,” Helmick says.

“We know that’s important and it’s paramount. But it doesn’t give you a pass on technology or your product lines. We know we have to put a full offering out there to compete up and down across all sizes of banks.”