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Monday, Jul 22, 2024

Community Banking Matters in Times of Crisis

When you’ve been in business for 114 years, you know how to handle a crisis.

California’s Covid-19 stay-at-home orders were announced on March 19, 2020. Immediately, Farmers & Merchants Bank (F&M) had two goals in mind: keep employees and clients safe. And continue to provide banking services no matter what.

Overnight, the 25-branch regional bank became an online, work-from-home enterprise – determined to help people from San Clemente to Santa Barbara keep their businesses and personal finances afloat.

“Continuity was key,” explains Melissa Lanfre, F&M Bank’s Executive Vice-President & COO. “We set on a path to get employees working from home. We purchased over 200 laptops, monitors, and headsets right away so we could send most back-office teams home.”

Banking may not be the first thing you think of as an essential service in difficult times, but it underlies many things that keep a community going. Local businesses were in crisis mode, trying to understand the government support available to them. They were frantically trying to keep their businesses operating – requiring fundamental, everyday transactions like paying vendors and employees locally and overseas.

“We knew the community needed us now more than ever. That’s why we didn’t close any locations or reduce our hours,” says Lanfre.

The bank kept phone lines running without disruption. Clients had access to bankers’ cell phones and email – reaching out to them at all hours of the day, including weekends. This all-hands-on-deck approach allowed F&M to process more than 4,000 PPP loans, totaling $713 million in 2020.

 “It’s always been our style to offer highly-personalized customer service,” said Phil Bond, F&M Bank’s Chief Credit Officer. “This stems from the fact that the bank started in 1907 when that was the norm. To get PPP loans processed for our clients, bankers went to their places of business and homes to get documents completed.”

This personal approach to banking is a core value at F&M. “Even though we’re a $10.5 billion bank, every executive is accessible to clients. We have decision-makers in every branch,” explains Bond.

F&M is a full-service, one-stop-shop financial institution – a place where clients can get all of their banking needs met. This includes foreign exchange and international payment services in partnership with Western Union Business Solutions.

“We’re all about having the best technology and the best technology partners. That’s where Western Union Business Solutions comes in,” says Judy Morales Long, F&M Bank’s Director of Operations.

“We’ve made it our mission to make it easy for clients to conduct business globally – whether it’s paying international invoices, paying contract employees overseas, or minimizing their foreign exchange risk.”

Gone are the days when small and medium-sized companies only do business locally. These days, companies of all shapes and sizes do business around the world.

During the pandemic, some companies needed to send international payments to keep their business operating smoothly. Morales Long explains, “Everyone from software developers, auto parts distributors, and decorations dealers sent international payments. It’s an essential service for companies that do business abroad.”

It can also be crucial for families, particularly during a global crisis. “Because of our partnership with Western Union Business Solutions, people can quickly get money to relatives and friends all around the world, in their own local currencies. This matters greatly when people are in crisis mode.”

Some community banks hesitate to offer international payments because of stringent regulations. Morales Long says, “Western Union Business Solutions really understands the global regulatory environment. This is a major reason we depend on them for our international payments.”

Another reason is that when clients send payments via Western Union Business Solutions, these transactions travel directly to their final destination. Other providers send transactions through intermediary banks, increasing the fees that clients pay.

Morales Long says, “We like being able to offer a fast, direct service for paying invoices and sending money internationally.”

It’s also comforting to have a partner with longevity. “Western Union is one of the only companies in the U.S. with a history longer than ours,” says Morales Long, referencing Western Union’s 170-year run.

Despite the pandemic, 2020 turned out to be a banner year for F&M, with a sizeable increase in deposits. Bond says, “We grew substantially in 2020, against all odds. We feel honored by that. I think it’s because people felt comfortable placing their life savings in a bank that has been part of this community for generations.”

He further explains, “People came to us, shared their stories and their financials…and trusted us to help them through a crisis that none of us could ever have imagined. The trust they placed in us is humbling.”

The bank reciprocated, giving $2.7 million back to the community in sponsorships, charitable contributions, and in-kind donations.

As for what’s next, online services of all kinds will continue to be a major priority for F&M. Lanfre says, “Everything needs to be online now. The pandemic has required our whole industry to make this shift. We’ll continue improving our services, including introducing online international payments sometime soon.” 

Lanfre says that Covid has taught the F&M team a crucial lesson. “Life can change in an instant. But you still need to be there every day, supporting your clients and welcoming new ones.” 

More than 1,800 financial institutions leverage our global payments network. To learn more, visit us at business.westernunion.com/financial

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