Steering the Ship Through Uncharted Waters: Wisconsin’s Banks Lead During Crisis

Crises often bring out the best in people, and the current COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. It is remarkable to see all the tireless effort taking place in all aspects of our world to provide care for the sick; to research, and develop new test kits and potential vaccines at lightning fast speed to help stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus; to make more PPE for all front-line workers; and to stabilize the financial impact caused by safer-at-home orders and other physical distancing requirements. 

As your association, WBA has worked right alongside you during this crisis to provide timely and accurate information and guidance, education, advocacy, forms, and other services to help you navigate through the evolving legislation and program changes. Banks were forced to manage this crisis both in terms of prioritizing their own staff needs and organizing teams of staff to alternate working in the office, and also responding to customer needs that became critical overnight when the governor first issued his safer-at-home order.

The banking industry has, not surprisingly, stepped up to help individual and business customers on the economic frontline of this crisis. Bankers proactively reached out to customers to offer assistance and developed programs to help relieve the financial stress by offering to temporarily adjust loan payments to interest-only or, in many cases, provide 60-90 day deferrals; waived fees; and created special new loan programs to help manage through the loss of income.

As government programs began rolling out, most notably the Paycheck Protection Act (PPP), bankers worked literally 24/7, every day of the week, responding to the flood of inquiries and applications from customers and non-customers alike. Given the fact that the program had a specific initial allocation of $349 billion, Wisconsin bankers worked long hours during the week and over weekends to take, underwrite, and process PPP applications to ensure their customers were in the queue and approved before the money ran out. Indeed, these funds were exhausted in the early morning of Thursday, April 16; however, it is anticipated that Congress will act to appropriate additional monies to the program. As of April 16, Wisconsin businesses received over 43,000 loans totaling over $8.3 billion in PPP funds.

Early on, WBA created a COVID-19 landing page for members to check daily for updates on state and federal issues, orders, and new laws and rules. This provided members with a single resource they could rely on for original content as well as links to other critical guidance that staff updated as quickly as information was released. WBA also began twice-per-day emails to members purely due to the rapidly changing environment we were living through to help customers. WBA staff were quickly recognized as experts on these programs and invited to speak for several other outside groups on behalf of the industry to educate their constituent members about the various financing options available for businesses struggling due to COVID-19.

Answering members' questions and providing ongoing education in this fluid environment also were critical priorities in tandem with the information being shared daily. WBA provided five free educational webinars on COVID-19 topics ranging from business continuity to employment law issues to understanding the CARES Act, primarily PPP. Member questions were handled by several staff and, at our peak, we estimate that key staff received over 300 emails daily with questions around the CARES Act and PPP, and our response time was, in nearly all cases, within the hour or two of first receiving the question. 

FIPCO's Loan Processing Central services and ShareFI consulting and agent services were quickly ramped up to help bankers manage the volume of mortgage and PPP loan doc prep work that needed to be done with limited bank staff and provide extra staffing to manage the pipeline of businesses with PPP questions and applications. In addition, several WBA forms, notable deferral agreements, were updated and made available to banks across the Midwest.

In the broadest sense of the word, WBA's advocacy for the banking industry and for its customers during this time was second to none. WBA proactively issued press releases and statements to the media to help educate the public on all the positive work the banking industry was doing to help people and businesses financially through this crisis. In addition, WBA reacted to many local, state, and national media inquiries providing substantive content and support for all the active involvement of bankers on the economic frontlines of the crisis. WBA worked to ensure accurate information about the various government programs and stimulus was provided to the public through these various news sources.

In addition, WBA was directly involved in many conversations with key elected officials at the state and national level to ensure the industry's needs were represented and heard. WBA communicated with each congressional office several times each week by email and phone to raise issues that needed clarification and to seek support for changes to the laws, rules, and program guidance. WBA is continuing those efforts on behalf of the industry nationally to not only advocate for Congress to appropriate more money to the PPP program so that more businesses can be helped, but also to work with key officials in the Governor's Administration to develop a plan to re-open our state's economy.

Providing value to the membership every day has been part of WBA's mission for years, so it was very easy to re-focus our priorities to helping members through this unprecedented crisis. The entire WBA team could not be more proud to represent an industry so vital to the state's economy. This crisis highlights the critical leadership role the banking industry plays in helping customers through very difficult financial times while bankers, as individuals, navigate these same uncertainties in their own personal lives. Thank you for all you are doing to help steer the economic ship through these uncharted waters!

Oswald Poels is president and CEO of the Wisconsin Bankers Association.

By, Amber Seitz