Local banker, entrepreneur smooth the small business loan process under the Covid-19 stimulus

Reuben Pressman, founder and CEO of St. Petersburg software company Presence, said it took just three days from the time he applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan from Bank OZK for the funding to land in his bank account.

The key was having paperwork in order and up to date, as well as working with a trusted team of bankers and other advisors, Pressman said.

Pressman, St. Petersburg’s Entrepreneur-In-Residence, and Leslie Bridges, senior vice president of business banking at First Citrus Bank, spoke with the St. Pete Catalyst about their perspectives on the $349 billion small business lending program that was included in the $2 trillion stimulus package designed to blunt the economic fallout from the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

The PPP, along with other economic relief measures, can help keep economic momentum going in St. Petersburg, Bridges said.

“We have seen all types of entrepreneurs opening their businesses. Some new ones opened during the first week of this. It’s heartbreaking to see. We hope we can get the money in their hands ASAP so they can sustain. We all love downtown St. Pete and we don’t want it to have a negative impact on what we like about the area,” she said.

Navigating the challenges

While the PPP launch was marked by confusion, the U.S. Small Business Administration said that as of Saturday morning, banks had approved more than 725,000 loans, totaling over $182 billion, according to Inc. magazine.

First Citrus, a Tampa-based bank with $418 million in assets that’s expanding into Pinellas County and St. Petersburg, has received and approved more than 500 PPP applications, Bridges said. A handful of those loans have been funded, she said.

Bank management started working on the program as soon as the stimulus bill as approved in late March, Bridges said. The bank began taking applications for PPP on April 3, when the SBA launched the program but about five days before specific guidelines were released.

“That was a little tricky because the SBA just released guidance about loan documents to use. There hadn’t been any information until the middle or end of last week about how to get these done. We kind of jumped on our own on that and started to work on that before we got guidance from the SBA and once we got the guidance, we felt good about what we had come up with,” Bridge said. “We’ve done a good job in terms of communicating with those who applied with us. If they were missing some documents, we let them know and kept the process moving along.”

The bank is still waiting on guidance for independent contractors and businesspersons who take an owner’s draw instead of a salary.

“Although they were allowed to apply on Friday of last week, we’re still waiting for guidance on how we’re supposed to underwrite those, what information to ask for and if there is anyone that’s going to be ineligible on that,” Bridges said.

While some larger banks have said they will only accept PPP loan applications from existing customers, “We’re happy to have a conversation with any owner who needs help,” Bridges said.

Bank OZK, a Little Rock, Arkansas-based bank with $23.6 billion in total assets, will quickly set up accounts for business owners who are not currently clients, said Pressman, who said he’s had a long-time relations with the bank.

Moving fast

Community banks such as First Citrus and Bank OZK seem to move faster than the larger institutions, Pressman said.

In addition, Bank OZK’s technology lab is based in St. Petersburg, giving local bankers a lead on the progress the bank was making on online applications, he said.

Pressman credited Barclay Harless at Bank OZK, as well as attorney Brent Britton at the Tampa office of the de la Peña & Holiday law firm, for making the process go smoothly.

Presence worked with Bank OZK to get paperwork in order several days before he applied for a PPP loan on Tuesday afternoon, April 8. Pressman was notified the loan was approved at 6 p.m. that evening but because of the size of the loan, it needed a second approval from a higher-level team. On the morning of Wednesday, April 9, the bank sent Pressman the final documents to sign. Then the bank sent the documents to the SBA.

“By the morning of April 10, the money was in my bank account,” Pressman said.

As the city’s Entrepreneur-In-Residence, his advice to other entrepreneurs and small business owners is to act quickly.

“Don’t wait until the last minute. It’s good to have your documents organized all the time because you never know what’s going to happen, and it’s good to have people on your team you can trust who can move quickly,” he said. “We were very prepared. We have taken on venture capital funding so we are used to having our documents in order. That was a big help. I have talked to other founders and there are people who don’t even know what their operating agreement is, and that’s something you have to submit when you are getting federal money and a loan in general, to know what control over that money is going to be, who’s signing for it, who’s allowed to do certain things.”

He also urges loan applicants to triple-check their applications.

“Make sure the information you put on the application is the same as in the documents you are uploading. If the documents are incorrect, get them corrected and then give them the right information, because if they don’t match that’s an issue.”

Businesses that will come out strong from the current downturn are the ones that adapt quickly, make changes, rise to the challenges, and build or facilitate what the world will be end up shifting to, Pressman said.

“Hang in there, do what you can, think smart and consider the fact that this could go on for a lot longer than we’re all anticipating,” Pressman said. “Sometimes that includes hard decisions for business to make to keep open and running. It’s unfortunate for anyone who has to furlough or change what their team makeup looks like, but hopefully between the Paycheck Protection Program and everything else going on, things will come back to normal and you’ll come out stronger than when you went into it.”

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