Local financial institutions adjusting to new practices

By BY MARK H. STOWERS FOR THE E-T,

Area businesses are continually adapting to the health care crisis with the COVID 19 disease that has quarantined states and countries around the world.

Sunflower County bank executives and staff are working to unravel the details of the most recently signed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES ACT).  The 2.2 trillion stimulus measure is aimed at providing relief to the American people and businesses.

In addition to providing direct financial help to Americans the stimulus also gives immediate assistance for hospitals, healthcare first responders, and patients, as well as support for small businesses and includes assistance for distressed industries.

Mitchell Hill, president of Community Bank, Alan Hargett, CEO of Planters Bank, Dale Deloach, City President of Southern Bancorp and Paul Townsend, president of Indianola’s Guaranty Bank branch have all been working with their staffs to create a safe and efficient environment for banking customers.

Hill, along with other area bank executives and staff are working to understand what all the stimulus includes for SBA loans.

“They approved the legislation but they didn’t approve of all the function and how it will occur. We know the basics, we have to get the details,” Hill said. “In the meantime, we need businesses to round up their information so we can process it quickly.”

Hill noted that “We are a preferred SBA lender in the state. We can get things done in a very quick and efficient manner,” he said.

Hargett is keeping the customers as the center of attention during the healthcare crisis.

“It’s a huge impact for the bank. We’re focusing on how do we serve our customers to a level they expect and handle all of their financial needs,” he said. “At the same time protecting from a health standpoint - our customers, staff and the community.”

Hargett has been meeting with branches around the Delta to keep banking normal and moving forward.

“We’ve been having daily conference calls to know what is going on in the communities,” Hargett said. “We limited our lobby to appointment only a week ago and that has worked well. Our drive-thrus are full and we’re trying to utilize our ATMS.”

He also understands that without the current suite of technologies available to customers with apps, online banking, online bill pay and more, the healthcare crisis would be a harder hit to banks.

“This would have been disastrous to us 15 years ago. We’ve had to focus on our 250 employees in our system. Some have been quarantined, I just got off of a self-quarantine after a trip to Disneyworld for spring break.”

The health of employees is a top priority for all banks to help flatten the curve and stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“If people don’t feel well or if people they know are sick and we think there’s any exposure at all, we send those folks home. We’re working remotely a lot which we couldn’t have done 15 years ago either,” Hargett said.

Banks are also reaching out and partnering with local businesses to be part of the “rescue” during the healthcare crisis.

“We’ve brought in lunches and bought gift cards and passed them out through our drive-thru. We are actively out there doing this in each of our communities to help support during this time,” he said. “We want people to understand this is not a financial crisis. Banks are strong. Banks here, around the country and in Mississippi are in a good position. Everybody has stepped up - the FDIC.  This is strictly a healthcare issue we are all trying to navigate through. We are actively seeking out our customers and asking if they have any issues, they need to talk to us. They can defer payments, we’ll help you, we’ll bridge the gap for you.”

Community Bank is keeping an eye on how to keep business flowing.

“We are maintaining our same basic plan with the same hours, our lobby is on a limited basis. We ask that people call and make an appointment and we are shifting our focus to the drive-thru,” Hill said. “It’s all limited access. We’re trying to keep our staff and customers safe. But business is occurring and everything is going good it’s just a little bit different.”

At Southern Bancorp, Deloach is keeping an eye on keeping business running smoothly and providing a high standard of health precaution.

“Like everyone around the country, we have been affected by the pandemic in that people look to their financial institutions in times of economic distress. As a result, we’ve fielded numerous calls from customers seeking guidance and assistance,” Deloach said. “We’re working to support our customers in a variety of ways that meet their specific needs, including loan assistance, credit/financial coaching, support for federal assistance measures and more.”

Deloach and his staff have a targeted plan.

“During these unprecedented times, our first priority is to protect the health and safety of our customers and employees, which is why we early on restricted access to our branches and temporarily moved business to the drive-thru lanes or by appointment only. We have encouraged customers to utilize mobile and web banking when possible and have made our library of financial resources available to the public as well as remote provided counseling options with our credit and financial coaches,” he said.

He also explained the crisis is a healthcare one, not a banking one.

“We are emphasizing to our customers that Southern Bancorp is financially sound and that their money is safe with us. We encourage customers not to pull large sums of cash out of the bank as it has the potential to make them a target for criminal activity. All deposits are insured by the FDIC up to $250,000 which adds another layer of security,” he said.

Townsend has been working the “automotive” business lane to keep customers happy.

“We’re making sure we keep all four lanes of the drive-thru open. We are appointment only in the lobby. If someone needs to come in and talk about a loan, they need to call ahead,” Townsend said.

With heavy business each month on the 1st and 3rd, Townsend has the bank extending hours to handle the overflow.

“We’re going to keep that drive-thru open seven to seven and we’ll do everything to make sure every customer gets what they need,” he said. “And try not to spread the virus. We’re constantly going out and wiping down the ATM because there’s lots and lots of contact on it. We are keeping our drive-thru wiped down as well.”

Smart phone banking apps and online banking has been a boon to most banks. Townsend notes the app is helping open customers’ eyes to more services.

“This is going to educate people as to what’s available to them online. They haven’t had to use it in the past but this is really pushing them in that direction,” he said.

Hargett summed up the message from all the area banks.

“We’re proactive, we’re involved, we’re strong and we’re here to serve the customer. Community banking is all about investing in the community. We’re only going to do as well as our community does. We’re open for business.”

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