Aug 18, 2020

In COVID-19 Aftermath, Uncertainty Gives Way to Cautious Optimism

Months ago, when stay-at-home orders were enacted, our parking lots and lobbies were mostly empty, many of our business customers had to halt operations, and uncertainty abounded over how the pandemic would affect business – and the economy.

While the pandemic continues, and its economic impacts are certainly real, we are feeling much better about the financial outlook than we did in the spring. Michael Solberg, Bell Bank’s president and CEO, says he is cautiously optimistic that this crisis is won’t be as bad as the Great Recession.

“Like all of our partner banks, we have gone through our loan portfolio with a fine-tooth comb and are feeling cautiously optimistic about where we sit now and going forward,” he explains. “Because of our diversification, off-the-charts mortgage business and stock market bounce back (with significantly ramped up activity in our banking, wealth and investing, and insurance areas), our bank now has reached total assets of more than $8.2 billion and deposits and liquidity at all-time highs, even while putting more into our loan loss reserves than we ever have.”

Another critical contributor to our success in weathering the pandemic storm was our involvement in the Small Business Association’s Paycheck Protection Program. From the beginning, Bell did not hesitate and provided the tools our teams needed to process loan applications as quickly as possible. Employees across departments asked how they could help and were trained to assist, allowing bankers to process more than 1,300 loans in the first week the program became available.

“The Paycheck Protection Program allowed us to not only help save tens of thousands of jobs, but also create impactful earnings and capital for the bank,” Michael notes. “Like many across the industry, our teams worked around the clock for weeks on end to meet the needs of our clients and communities. The way our industry circled the wagons around the PPP and what we were able to accomplish in such a short period of time really makes me proud to be part of this industry.”

Thriving in a Changing Environment

With locations in multiple states with different mask-wearing requirements, some of our lobbies look different than others, but overall, we’re focusing on the health and safety of our customers and employees and following national and local guidelines.

Part of that is to continue supporting employees working remotely where possible and it makes sense to do so.

“I’m amazed at how effective and efficient 1,200 employees are working from home,” Michael remarks. “We still had about 300 frontline workers as well, who have done a great job and shown amazing resiliency and dedication to make sure we stay open. I am amazed by what our employees have been able to accomplish. I couldn't be more proud of how our team members have adapted and supported each other and our company – and that's what has brought about the success we're having.”

With so many staying home for so long, there seems to have been a pent-up demand for meetings with bankers, financial planners, investment advisors and insurance agents. Many more in-person meetings are now happening – although typically with fewer people in the room than previously.

“With all the market turmoil over the last several months, it's been great for our teams to sit down with clients and make sure they're taking the long view of financial security,” Michael comments.

Bell Bank Strong and Growing

At a time when some banks around the country are closing branches and slowing growth, we are excited to announce the opening of our new Bell Bank branch in Forest Lake, Minn., on Monday, July 6. We also have plans to open new branches in the Phoenix metro in August, West Fargo, N.D., in the fall and Duluth, Minn., in the fourth quarter. Additionally, we have branches scheduled to open next year in Peoria, Ariz., and at City Center in downtown Minneapolis.

Our correspondent division is a huge part of our success. We appreciate our partnerships and friendships and that our partnerships help allow us all to continue to grow.

“We have to learn to live with the virus around us and, like so many things we're familiar with in banking, manage the risk,” Michael notes. “The next few years will be challenging. The key for all of us is to not only be prudent in managing risks, but also to continue to grow.”