Strength | Pandemic boosts First Citrus’ profile, impact: Not only did the pandemic bring new customers to community banks, but it also gave them a chance to work closely with hundreds of small local businesses to help them ride the economic waves of the past year. First Citrus Bank was founded in Tampa in 1999 and is currently the eighth-largest community bank in the region. The bank brought in earnings of just under $5 million for 2020, a record sum for First Citrus. During the Paycheck Protection Program, the bank provided 1,277 PPP loans totaling $110 million, with almost all of those loans going to businesses based in the Tampa Bay region.
One year ago, the Small Business Administration launched the Paycheck Protection Program, which would provide funds to small businesses to help them survive the seemingly-temporary crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But as the starting gun went off, it was clear that even some of the world’s largest financial institutions would not be able to handle the wave of loan applications sweeping through banking systems. And so these super-regional lenders — and thousands of their customers — turned to community banks.
“The local market president of Bank of America reached out, Wells Fargo — they were being overrun,” said Jack Barrett, the president of Tampa-based First Citrus Bank.
Before 2020, there had been concerns over the future of community banks. But the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing Paycheck Protection Program showed that these smaller financial institutions still have an essential role to play in today’s economic ecosystem. Locally, community banks like First Citrus, the Bank of Tampa and First Home Bank provided thousands of loans worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
“One of our clients — a new client — he had told his buddy he had already got his loan funded, and his buddy was furious because he couldn’t even get an acknowledgment from his large bank,” Barrett recalled.
Clients were first drawn to the ability to obtain a PPP loan but stayed because of the hands-on approach that meant they could get in touch with an actual human being if they wanted to. Barrett did not have an exact estimate but said that First Citrus brought in hundreds of new customers because of the PPP.
“It’s been marvelous for our company, from a financial standpoint,” he said. “Since the first round got closed out, we’ve been proselytizing those relationships from new borrowing clients and on-boarding, and that’s been a sustainer for our asset growth. We’re a $536 million company today; in February 2020 we were just over $420 million at year-end. It’s been a slingshot.”
First Citrus and other banks are continuing to process PPP loans for the latest round of the program, set to expire at the end of March. While the work has paid off on the balance sheet, Barrett said that helping clients through the process was immensely rewarding. Last spring, his team worked nights, weekends and holidays to meet demand — even working on Easter — but he said First Citrus became a closer group by enduring that trial by fire.
“The abrupt demand for this critical need, that brought everyone closer together,” he said. “We were around each other seven days a week, 12 to 15 hours a day, and if you do that for several weeks, you get pretty close. We knew each other in a professional way before, but over that time, we got to know each other in a real way.”
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