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Locally owned bank tops $1 billion in PPP loans

Brian Hartz

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Tom Zernick is the president of CreditBench, First Home Bank's SBA lending division that provides loans to small businesses.

First Home Bank, the lone remaining community bank headquartered in St. Petersburg, recently surpassed $1 billion in Paycheck Protection Program loans. The bank has been one of Tampa Bay’s most active participants in the Small Business Administration program that authorized hundreds of billions of dollars in forgivable loans for small businesses that were affected by the Covid-19 crisis.

As of June 30, 2020, CreditBench, First Home Bank’s SBA lending division, had processed 5,644 PPP loans totaling more than $810 million. Its average PPP loan size was $144,000, and its ratio of PPP loans to total loans was 64 percent, making it No. 1 in the state in that category.

Today, according to CreditBench President Tom Zernick, the bank’s number of PPP loans has nearly doubled to 11,133. And he expects that to grow as the latest round of PPP, which began in January, remains open until March 31 or until the $284 billion in relief funds have been exhausted. The bank’s high level of PPP activity, Zernick told the Catalyst, has “impacted well over 110,000 jobs, which is exactly what we really wanted to do.”

In addition to small businesses, PPP loans are available to sole proprietors, self-employed people and independent contractors. The loans require neither collateral nor a personal guarantee, and can be used for payroll, interest, rent or utility expenses incurred.

Zernick said PPP has been a natural fit for the CreditBench team, because it already specialized in the SBA’s 7(a) loan program that’s intended to help small businesses.

“We were a national top 10 SBA 7(a) lender housed right here in St. Pete,” he said. “We have a very large 7(a) loan production team, but we went into PPP saying, ‘We’re going to be all in. We’re going to suspend our 7(a) loan operations to focus solely on saving businesses.”

Diving into PPP with such enthusiasm has been good for First Home Bank’s business, as well.

“We started out $600 million, pre-Covid, in [total] assets,” Zernick said. “Today, our balance sheet has ballooned to $1.5 billion because of the growth of our PPP loan production.”

The success hasn’t come easily, however. Recalling the early days of the pandemic and PPP, Zernick said the CreditBench team was working seven days a week, sometimes up to 16 hours a day, to meet demand and keep clients’ loan applications on track.

“We were in the trenches,” he said. “It wasn’t uncommon to have a team meeting at one in the morning. We drew strength from watching the nurses and the doctors saving the lives of individuals with Covid. They were an inspiration for us. And we said, ‘Hey, you know what, we’re going to step up. We’re going to use the power of CreditBench and we’re going to save businesses. And we did just that.”

The second round of PPP is open to both first- and second-draw applicants, but some of the qualifying criteria have changed, and the SBA now requires all applications to go through a portal for review. To expedite the process and avoid being flagged with an error code, Zernick advises applicants to work with a banker to ensure their file is complete prior to submission.

“It’s a little bit more work upfront on the second round of PPP loans,” he said. “I would encourage borrowers to become friends with a ‘face’ at the bank — have a buddy within the bank that you can go to.”

To find out if your company qualifies for a PPP loan and learn more about how to apply, visit the SBA website.

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