Banks See Sandy's Scourge on Small Businesses

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BOCA RATON, Fla. — Hurricane Sandy battered banks’ branches, office buildings and employees in the Northeast. But some of its longest-lasting effects for the industry may be on banks’ customers, especially small businesses.

“This is really tough for small-business owners,” Ginger Siegel, an executive vice president of business banking at PNC Financial Services (PNC), said in an interview Friday. “It’s a really big issue.”

Most small businesses in the United States have under $1 million in annual revenue and don’t have the infrastructure or “cash reserves in many cases to help them deal with this,” she added.

Siegel was speaking on the sidelines of SourceMedia’s annual Small-Business Banking conference in Florida, 1,200 miles south of the lingering power outages, destroyed homes and blocks-long gas station lines in the New York area. But the storm’s effects were still a large topic of discussion for bankers who had spent the past week trying to recover from the storm.

“The worst thing is that the people who support all the people who are out of power and having trouble are the small businesses,” says Siegel, who lives in Westchester, N.Y.

“You think about even [downtown Manhattan], you’ve got bodegas that are out of business or got flooded, or any kind of industry that supports getting people back on their feet,” she said. “The Home Depots and the huge grocery chains, they can put in all this money and get back up and running, but I think for small-business owners, these are the people that we all rely on.”

Siegel is a longtime small-business banker, having worked at Citigroup (NYSE: C), Washington Mutual, Webster Bank and RBC Bank before PNC’s purchase of RBC brought her over this year. The Pittsburgh bank is not expecting any significant negative effects on its business because of the storm, but it has been dealing with the “disruption” felt by customers and employees, she said.

PNC has “the wherewithal and the ability to help their clients, so they’re not in an uncertain financial position themselves,” Siegel said. “The negative part for them is just the disruption. So we have the disruption to some of our branches, disruption to our employees, the disruption to some of our service centers.  But the organization is very well run and their planning was there.”

Like some other big banks, PNC is offering loans at special rates to customers in areas affected by the storm. Many of the small businesses in those regions have already been dealing with other challenges, including uncertain economic growth and the threat of the looming “fiscal cliff” of governmental spending cuts and tax increases.

Small-business owners have “already been thrown a number of things. We know in the industry overall, demand even just for lending has been down,” Siegel said.

But she added that PNC is seeing the most immediate impact from the storm on its bankers in the affected regions, who are facing new challenges as they try to return to business as usual. “The biggest effect” from the storm has been “something as simple as gas,” and the hours-long lines in many states to refuel cars, Siegel said.

“As a banker, what you do every day is you go out and you meet customers. What PNC’s had to do is really balance the fact that you’re going to help make your people look for gas and sit in line for three hours” in order to do their jobs, Siegel said, adding that the bank’s management has been “wonderful” about balancing responsibilities to its employees and its customers.

“It’s about really ensuring that the outreach is there to our clients, but it’s got to be in the way that’s going to be the safest and make the most sense for everybody,” she said.

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