2 min read April 2021 — Despite the sizable challenges inherent to the pandemic, small community banks have shown extraordinary resilience and growth over the past year. Brian Jones, President and CEO of The First National Bank of Elmer, shares his experience navigating the pandemic and why he is bullish about South Jersey going forward.
What was the greatest lesson learned for the bank over the past year?
I think the greatest lesson learned over the past year during the pandemic is that relationships count, and in the end, sometimes they are the only thing that really matters. As a banker, I only serve one purpose and that is to make my customers successful. In order to do that, we have to be able to adapt, change, and be fluid. That is what we were able to do during the pandemic – to work with our customers, help them along, give them what they needed. We participated in the PPP loan programs, and for a rather small institution, I think we were impactful. To date, we were able to make over $45 million in PPP loans, which helped over 300 businesses get through the pandemic and contributed to saving over 5,000 jobs. So, as I look back on 2020, I am grateful for the loyalty of our customers and I applaud our clients’ resiliency and look forward to more normal times ahead.
How has client satisfaction been affected by the growing emphasis on digital technologies?
During the pandemic, one of the challenges that many institutions faced, as we did, was the technology element. Often, community-based organizations in the financial industry lack economies of scale in reference to their IT applications. For us, that meant we had to get up to speed very quickly and make sure that our people could work remotely, as well as in a hybrid situation. The endgame here was to quickly get our people in a position to serve their clients in an efficient manner. We augmented our systems, and we issued more laptops with VPN connectivity to our folks allowing for remote access capabilities. We were able to get upwards of 50% of our full-time team working remotely or in a hybrid situation. Because we were able to do that, we delivered timely, efficient service to our clients during this crisis.
This was all about customer satisfaction, which honestly challenged us because we operate in a soft community bank model that is really people touching people and people interacting on a personal basis. So, what we had to do was enhance our ability to communicate electronically. We had to make sure that we had the most current information in our files for our clients’ emails and phone numbers because the objective was to never lose touch. Well, I am happy to report that we were successful in doing that and, as a result, not only did we maintain our current relationships, but we were also able to secure some very large new clients. These clients were referred to us by our existing customers during this crisis. When you have your customers out there telling other folks you are doing a great job, that is really what it is all about.
What are some of the challenges that you are facing?
Obviously, some of the challenges facing us are coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic and adjusting to the new normal. There will be more reliance placed on electronic banking. To some degree, we will have to modify how we do business and how we reach our clients. In addition, the financial industry will be facing low interest rates for the foreseeable future which will cause compression in the net interest margin, so increasing returns may be challenging.
Enhancement to the cyber security function will be critically important as we move forward and put more reliance on that manner of conducting business.
I feel there is a tremendous amount of funding just sitting on the sidelines, waiting to jump into the market. Because of the unfortunate circumstances revolving around COVID, many businesses have closed, and many have filed bankruptcy. We may experience bumps of inflation over the next 6 to 18 months. I feel this will be a short-term scenario and will work itself out over a period of time.
And, I guess my final challenge in the banking world is finding good, young, qualified people who want to come into the industry. We have to make it more attractive to them. We have to mold how we approach careers in our industry; to make them conform more to the ever-changing environment that we operate within. We have to be able to relate to young people and supply them with the things that they need and want — whether that is being an environmentally conscious employer, providing a flexible work schedule, or rotating responsibilities. If we want to keep people coming into our industry, we have to adapt to their changing desires and needs.
What are some of the advantages of being in the South Jersey area and what is your outlook for the region’s economy?
I am upbeat about the 3rd and 4th quarters of 2021. There are still some rough times ahead, but as more and more people become vaccinated and the economy starts to open up again, we think these will be great opportunities for a locally owned community-based bank like ours. I think The First National Bank of Elmer will be in a terrific position to move forward and continue to be the best Community Bank that we can be, and that means making our clients successful.
Working in South Jersey provides our institution with great opportunities. We know what we do well, and we go out and do it. That is the key to being successful in whatever you do in life. Another attribute that makes us successful is our employees. They live where they work, know their clients by their first names, and they know us in the same manner.
When times get tough, what matters in your financial world is to be able to pick up that phone and get in contact with your banker. We provide comfort and counsel to our customers when they need us most. That is what you get from The First National Bank of Elmer.
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