Insider Q&A: Jack Heath of Washington Trust Bank

PHOENIX (AP) — Banks both large and small have had to dramatically adapt to the coronavirus pandemic. They’ve closed branches as customers fall behind on their debts and small businesses that were fine in February find themselves in dire straits.

Washington Trust Bank is an over century-old family-owned bank with 42 branches across Washington state, Idaho and Oregon. It’s had to radically scale up productivity to administer applications for the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, $349 billion-worth of emergency loans to help keep workers in jobs and bills paid. In the first days of the program, Washington Trust’s loan officers processed 20 times the number of loan applications than they normally do in an entire year.

Jack Heath is the CEO of Washington Trust. The interview is edited for length and clarity.

Q: Your bank had to scale up its small business division quickly after the pandemic. What’s been the result?

A: Phase one of the Paycheck Protection Program went really well for us. The ongoing challenge has been the Small Business Administration’s E-Tran system. It’s been slow, we were only able to get 57 applications in on the first day. But now we have done 3,800 applications for phase one, and have more than 1,000 applications in process for phase two. Overall we did $1.2 billion in loans in just two weeks for PPP.

Q: What about your branches?

A: We are going to be reopening slowly and prudently. We’ve learned through this crisis that we are able to answer and help customers remotely, and if they need an appointment, we are making them available to them. We also have drive-thru banking. Online banking has been a must have, and we’ve been grateful to our IT department who has kept everything running despite the surge in demand.

Q: Many banks have had to write down loans or takes hits to their balance sheets because of COVID. How has your bank done financially?

A: We’ve been diverting the proceeds from the PPP to our loan-loss reserves. We know more of our customers are going to be under pressure in the coming weeks and months, so we wanted to be prepared. Fortunately, the FDIC has allowed banks to make deferrals to customers who were fine before the pandemic without it negatively impacting their balance sheet. It was a great move by them.

Q: What’s the long-term impact of this pandemic going to be on your bank?

A: The Paycheck Protection Program has been a rallying call for our organization. It’s broken down barriers and silos in the bank that we have worked for years to try to accomplish in weeks. It’s also changed the way I, and many others, look at remote working. Everyone is still interacting and collaborating, despite being distant. It’s certainly changed my perspective.

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