First Home Bank

$1.7 billion

St. Petersburg, Fla.

The $1.7 billion-asset community bank went all in on the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to the tune of $1.2 billion in loans to local small businesses and other customers. Its leaders say it was an absolutely unprecedented time for First Home Bank and CreditBench, its Small Business Administration (SBA) lending division.

“Friday, April 2, 2021, was the one-year anniversary date of a year like no other in my 30-plus years of SBA lending,” says Thomas G. Zernick, First Home Bank’s executive vice president and president of SBA lending division, and president of CreditBench.

“Every division in our bank jumped into PPP [lending], including our CEO, Anthony Leo, who worked with all of us on a daily basis.”
—Thomas G. Zernick, First Home Bank

In April 2020, First Home Bank decided to focus CreditBench’s efforts on making PPP loans. And it succeeded—big time. The community bank delivered $877 million in PPP loans to nearly 9,000 PPP clients in the first round, keeping wages flowing to more than 100,000 workers. The momentum continued into round two. As of April 6, 2021, the bank was responsible for more than $300 million in PPP loans to an additional 3,229 clients.

How did First Home Bank achieve such success with the program? “We were fortunate to have a high-volume SBA 7(a) platform that was capable of closing 1,000-plus SBA 7(a) loans a year,” Zernick says. However, the bank made a strategic decision to temporarily suspend its 7(a) production to pivot 100% to the PPP, as the team quickly realized that local businesses were starving for capital and funds to make payroll. “We knew we had to be socially responsible servants,” he adds.

CreditBench leveraged its 60-member team to tackle the mission of saving thousands of businesses in the area. The division also enlisted about 60 other employees to help it process the thousands of PPP applications.

“Every division in our bank jumped into PPP,” Zernick says, “including our CEO, Anthony Leo, who worked with all of us on a daily basis.”

Building the PPP army

In terms of technology, the community bank’s PPP pivot was relatively seamless because of its expertise in SBA lending. “We were already a top ten SBA 7(a) lender nationally, so we were used to using technology and electronic communication to help small businesses across the nation and in our own backyard,” Zernick says.

“We held daily and nightly briefings, updating our army on changes to the process, fixes for the glitches and improvements to technology and reporting.”
—Thomas G. Zernick, First Home Bank

The group of existing SBA lending staff and added staff—its “PPP army,” as Zernick calls it—consisted of representatives from every product line and operations area. “We held daily and nightly briefings, updating our army on changes to the process, fixes for the glitches and improvements to technology and reporting,” Zernick says. The process was like building a race car while driving the Indianapolis 500, he adds.

Zernick’s work extended outside the walls of First Home Bank. He was called to testify before the Senate’s Small Business Committee this past December, where he asked for PPP and SBA-related improvements. All four of his requests were incorporated into the relief bill that led to round two of the PPP.

“I coined the phrase that we needed a ‘business vaccine,’ asking for additional PPP and other SBA revisions,” he says.

Huge growth

The new working model created within First Home Bank turned out to be what Zernick describes as the most significant cultural change in its history. The pivot to exclusively working on the PPP ended up helping the community bank overall. Prior to getting involved in the PPP, the bank’s assets were $600 million. That has increased nearly three-fold and is now $1.7 billion.

Looking back on an unusual year, Zernick says, everyone at the bank feels gratified. “As we watched the dollars get disbursed to the needy businesses and received the wonderful love letters from our happy PPP recipients,” he says, “all of us realized we were making a tremendous impact on thousands of families.”

A PPP customer success story

Gayoso Plastic Surgery of St. Petersburg, Fla., has First Home Bank to thank for helping get it through COVID-19.

“When it became apparent that medical practices were going to have to close due to the pandemic, Dr. Gayoso and I both realized that we had an entire staff that would be impacted by this closure if we were not able to make payroll,” says practice manager Amy Thomas.

The pandemic was particularly threatening to the practice, whose business model is dependent on disposable income. The team reached out to First Home Bank for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan because the two have worked on a construction project together for nearly four years.

Working with First Home Bank was easy, Thomas says. “Each time, we came out of our conferences feeling very assured that our loan, and therefore our business, was going to be taken care of,” she adds.

Had the practice not received the PPP loan, Thomas says, it would have had to lay off most of its staff. “As it stands, the loan allowed us to maintain 100% of our staff throughout the shutdown,” she says. “I can’t imagine what our business would have looked like had we not been the beneficiary of the PPP loan.”