YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Perhaps it was his father’s recommendation that steered Josh Toot away from the family’s trucking business and down an entirely different road.
“He said, ‘Stay out of the trucking business,’ ” Toot recalls with a laugh. “Both of my parents were small-business owners. I got to see the highs and lows of it all.”
And so, the new Mahoning Valley Market president of Premier Bank ventured into what he says is the next-best thing: a position in banking where he could lend his expertise and insights to those business owners seeking capital to grow – business owners like his parents.
“You don’t really appreciate it when you’re younger,” Toot says. “But as you get older, you see the highs and the struggles. I just found a passion in dealing with businesses and finding a way to make their lives better.”
Toot, a native of Lisbon and a graduate of Lisbon David Anderson High School, says he became increasingly drawn to commercial banking after completing his studies at Hiram College.
“I graduated and got into a training program at Sky Bank [now Huntington] in 2000,” he says. At Sky, Toot began as a teller and then moved into branch management before making the leap to the trust and credit departments. Eventually, he joined the commercial banking team and discovered his true calling.
Huntington Bancshares acquired Sky in 2007. Toot stayed in the commercial banking department.
“At Huntington, I ran their business banking” and worked directly under Frank Hierro, then Huntington Bank regional president for the Mahoning Valley.
In 2014, Hierro joined what was then Home Savings Bank as its executive vice president and Mahoning Valley regional president. Toot followed in 2017 as Home Savings’ commercial banking manager. Home Savings merged with First Federal Bank in 2020, creating Premier Bank.
Vince Luizzi, Premier executive vice president and chief banking officer, says Toot’s appointment demonstrates the company’s commitment to leveraging homegrown talent.
“He was groomed for this position by one of the very best, Frank Hierro,” Luizzi says. “We as an organization can only be successful if the communities we serve are successful. Josh is the perfect reflection of this.”
“I’ve learned from the very best,” Toot agrees, paying homage to Hierro, who retired in October after more than 40 years in the industry. “I’ve worked under Frank almost the entire time I’ve been in banking. So, I got to see how to do it the right way – and he did it on a daily basis.”
Key to developing a successful career in the industry is gaining a deep understanding of a customer’s business and goals, Toot says.
“Relationships drive everything,” he says. “It’s on us to understand our clients’ needs. When people come to us and there’s a need, usually the need is immediate.”
A full appreciation of a customer’s cash flow and business cycles, for example, helps the lender anticipate any need for working capital or future business expansions. “You have to understand what’s happened over the last year and what’s to come,” he says.
Then again, there are crises that no one could anticipate, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Navigating the pandemic was a challenge,” Toot says. “Everyone thought that because of the pandemic, lending would slow down. It did not.”
Toot says his team was swamped throughout the crisis – especially with Paycheck Protection Program lending. “We had to see this as a priority,” he says.
While the first round of PPP lending was difficult, he says Premier Bank and the U.S. Small Business Administration “did an amazing job” of supporting businesses with the necessary capital to stay afloat.
The bank continued to perform its traditional underwriting and closing duties.
“The hours were longer. But we did get through it,” Toot says..
If anything, the pandemic underscores the importance of consistent communication with your customers, Toot says. Such contact proved indispensable during a period when many customers panicked.
“Preparation is big,” he says. “And that goes with anything – if you communicate regularly, you’ll be ready to go a lot quicker.”
Despite the stubbornness of the pandemic and its impact on the labor market and global supply chains, Toot says he’s confident that the commercial lending market is likely to grow. “We’re seeing a lot of expansions from our client base in this market,” he says. “That’s ideal for us.”
Much of the commercial lending activity is dedicated to corporate or small-business expansions, not startups, Toot observes. “Expansions are everything right now,” he says. “They have a ton of work or they’re seeing an avenue for new revenue and adding new room and equipment.”
Still, these businesses face the same challenges that others do. The No. 1 issue Toot’s customers face is the tight labor market and their inability to find qualified candidates to fill jobs.
As such, many are investing more into technology and automation, reducing their need for additional employees.
And although more customers are opting for digital services, Premier has not closed a single branch, Toot says. “These branches are extremely valuable to our client base and we’re looking to keep our brick and mortar where it is.”
Toot sits on the boards of Valley Economic Development Partners and the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley. Premier Bank and its foundation continues to play a large role in its work with causes such as Habitat for Humanity, area food pantries and the Rescue Mission, he notes.
“Small business is the backbone, the lifeblood of our community. My goal is to be the best to our clients and pursue and bring on new clients.”
Editor’s Note: This story was first published in the December print edition. Vince Luizzi has since left Premier Bank.
Pictured: Josh Toot replaces the retired Frank Hierro as Mahoning Valley market president for Premier Bank.