Jennifer Weidner – Canandaigua National Bank & Trust
There’s plenty to like about Canandaigua, New York, a small city of around 10,000 residents happily ensconced in a sea of green forest adjacent to 16-mile-long Canandaigua Lake.
And it’s not just residents who like the place. Enough tourists visit each year to pump an extra $30 million or so into the local economy annually.
When COVID-19 arrived last March, however, much of that money dried up, and with it so did many small businesses.
At least, that’s how it could have gone. Thanks to local efforts, as well as the fast response of the Canandaigua National Bank & Trust, those businesses have largely weathered the pandemic and promise to resume as normal once a vaccine is distributed.
“We formed a management team to implement pandemic-related projects, gained a significant number of new clients, and fulfilled one of the bank’s strategic initiatives—expansion and assisting our partners in the community,” says the bank’s General Counsel and Corporate Secretary Jennifer Weidner.
As soon as funds were available, the Western New York-based, community-owned bank with 24 community branches quickly instituted an aggressive approach to access the federally funded Payroll Protection Program for both existing and new clients.
The bank still conducted due diligence, Weidner adds, mostly limiting loans to those in the bank’s geographic footprint and in compliance with the SBA-administered loan guidelines. Beyond that, all new clients simply had to create an account into which funds would be deposited. This strategy brought in more than 1,600 new clients, a combination of businesses and sole proprietors—all qualified through the SBA.
There were plenty of challenges, Weidner notes. The mechanics of the SBA program were difficult at times. The hastily constructed guidelines took time to understand and the federal system created to administer the funds, the Paycheck Protection Program, kept crashing—but Weidner and the entire bank were on a mission.
“We needed local businesses to be able to continue to pay employees when revenue wasn’t supportive of that and to keep them employed until revenues came back,” Weidner says. “We were very successful with this program. We deployed staff from other positions to work on the program and facilitated over 4,000 loans.”
Support not profit
It wasn’t uncommon for CNB to help clients qualify and receive funds after those same clients had been told by other banks that they didn’t qualify. One possible reason: there’s not a lot of profit in the PPP loans, given their long duration and 1 percent interest rate. If the loan recipient ends up qualifying for forgiveness (as most will), the profitability drops precipitously despite the modest administrative fee afforded to bank lenders.
It’s been far from a straight financial windfall for the bank, but Weidner says that’s not what it’s about.
“It’s about relationships more than money,” she adds.
In addition to acquiring new clients, the bank also strengthened relations with established clients. The logic being that, if you provide them with quality financial services and treat them well, that loyalty will be returned.
For now, the bank is largely back to business as usual—with appropriate pandemic measures in place. While some employees work on-site, most are still working remotely. The bank is studying the issue of whether a full-time office residency is even necessary for some positions.
“We learned that many of us can do our jobs remotely and that there are both benefits and detriments to that, one of the latter being the loss of certain types of communications—hearing about an issue early on. Now, there’s a risk that I might only find out when it’s a burning problem,” Weidner says. “We’re as busy—or busier—than we’ve ever been before.”
In short, by fall 2020, things were going as well as could be expected at CNB—with no signs of slowing down.
Weidner has managed the fast-moving logistics and legalities of this effort, including corporate risk and compliance. Though it’s taken serious effort bank-wide, the result has been community-focused growth for the bank and saving businesses that otherwise might never again have hung their shingles.
Pre-coronavirus, her workday might have included research and implementation of collaborative tools, cryptocurrency, governance issues, regulatory compliance, litigation and employment matters. Internally, there’s been a notable increase in bank-wide acceptance of the corporate risk department’s role in policy and operations.
While in the past it felt like business and compliance weren’t always on the same team, that changed quickly in 2020 as traditional ways of doing business have been revamped.
“With some new management we’ve taken a different perspective that grew within the ranks—a respect for compliance as a line of defense against risk,” Weidner says. “We are working to put guardrails in place in a way everyone can understand and agree with.”
That process has included initiatives as seemingly simple as defining and managing complaints. The pandemic provided an opportunity to assess that and other issues important to the bank on a larger level. But, even before coronavirus, the bank had spent the last few years bolstering its vendor management program, creating a centralized department to oversee vendors instead of departments dealing with them directly. Increased due diligence has led to a much more stable and unified program.
Along the same lines, project management got a major re-do across the board and became a stand-alone department in the process.
“Our projects were all over the map from department to department,” Weidner says. “Now, we have a much better handle on individual project priorities, timelines and completion parameters. We only have so many resources to give to our project chain and now we’re prioritizing those.”
Other updates have been centered on the bank’s online operations, including hiring a chief information security officer who works with IT and CNB’s corporate risk department to ensure the safety of data.
For Weidner, though, the biggest boon has been helping other departments and employees get a feel for when to engage her expertise. Her goal is to create a culture that gives every employee a voice and a direct line of communication to her and her department.
A native of the Finger Lakes Region, she says that being from the area put her in a unique position to stand with a community dealing with COVID-19 in 2020.
“I grew up in this area, then ended up in Boston, but it was an expensive city with a tough job market in 1991,” Weidner says. “I settled down in Rochester, drove back and forth to Buffalo to attend law school, and basically live the same hard-working life as many of our customers.”
A graduate of Brandeis University and the State University of New York at Buffalo Law School, she was hired by CNB in 2014, and brought with her more than 20 years of business and legal experience—an asset for a bank founded in 1887 via a historic charter written in longhand script.
“There’s a sense of creativity and connectivity throughout our organization right now, which is generating excitement around multiple business initiatives,” Weidner adds. “The days we find solutions for people are the days when I feel the best about what I’m doing. That’s how we remain successful.”
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