Texas banks go all out to help employees hurt by Harvey

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HOUSTON — In a gleaming office tower several miles west of downtown sit tall piles of detergent, pet food, granola bars and virtually anything else that a flooded household might need in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Upstairs, kids are playing in a temporary day care center, while volunteers on a makeshift phone bank are offering to cover the cost of hotel rooms.

Down the hall is the staging area for a team of Houstonians who are driving to storm-damaged homes to tear out carpet and drywall. And outside in the parking lot, a gas truck is giving away fuel, one of the most precious commodities in the storm’s immediate aftermath.

The extensive disaster-relief efforts were being run by Amegy Bank, the Houston subsidiary of Zions Bancorp., for the benefit of its 1,900 local employees and their families. The labor was being provided by their colleagues at the bank.

“We have been laser-focused on our employees,” said Scott McLean, Zions' president and chief operating officer.

Many banks and credit unions that operate in southeast Texas have taken a similar approach in the aftermath of Harvey, which may prove to be the costliest storm in U.S. history.

Their post-disaster playbooks suggest that providing relief services to hard-hit employees yields several benefits: it taps into the desire of more fortunate workers to volunteer in their communities; it builds a closer spirit of camaraderie among staffers; and it enables those employees whose homes were damaged or destroyed to return to work sooner.

On top of that, helping colleagues at a time of extreme need is simply the right thing to do, bankers in the hurricane-plagued region said.

Last week, Hancock Holding trucked basic supplies such as toilet paper, milk, water and bread in from Louisiana to aid displaced employees in Texas.

The Gulfport, Miss., banking company has a relatively small footprint in Houston. But with many branches dotting the Gulf of Mexico, the $26.5 billion-asset Hancock has plenty of experience with hurricanes and their aftermath.

“You can’t serve the public if your employees are shellshocked,” said Kevin Rafferty, an executive vice president at Hancock. “You’ve got to take care of the employees first.”

At Energy Capital Credit Union in Houston, eight out of 50 employees reported flooding in their homes. The credit union, which primarily serves Exxon Mobil’s workforce, moved quickly to give the flood-affected staffers a week of paid leave and grants of $1,000 each.

“I’ve picked up quite a bit of food and water to bring back to the office,” said Randall Dixon, Energy Capital’s CEO, “to provide for people who still need assistance.”

Woodforest National Bank in The Woodlands, Texas, is also awarding grants to bankers who were impacted by Hurricane Harvey. Separately, the $5 billion-asset institution is accepting contributions from employees who want to help their flood-stricken colleagues, and plans to match any donations made in September.

The assistance goes both ways, of course. In the hurricane’s wake, many bankers are also going the extra mile for their employers.

Dustin Johnson, an assistant Woodforest branch manager in Spring, Texas, returned to his post just a few days after his house and car were flooded. Johnson and his family are staying at a neighbor’s home. He has been tearing carpet and linoleum out of their one-story house in an effort to prevent mold from growing.

“Right now my house is uninhabitable, but we’re making it through,” he said.

At Amegy, top executives held brainstorming sessions last week on what they could do to help employees whose homes were damaged. They set up a help line for affected workers to call, and by the end of the week it had rung more than 800 times.

Mary Murray, an executive vice president at the bank, was among the volunteers who were fielding calls. “I just feel like that’s the best thing I can do,” she said. “These folks, it’s tragic the stories that they have.”

Employees who have been forced to leave their homes are receiving $160 per night for at least two weeks to pay for a hotel room. They are eligible for grants from Amegy of up to $2,000, as well as separate grants from an employee fund that had raised $93,000 by Monday.

“You can’t imagine the stories about people having to leave their house,” said McLean, who was formerly Amegy’s CEO and still lives in Texas. “They don’t have their wallets, they don’t have anything,”

Displaced Amegy employees will also be able to apply for interest-free loans of up to $20,000 to help pay for repairs.

The disaster-relief efforts are being coordinated by David McGee, Amegy’s president and CEO for San Antonio. There seems to be little that he and his fellow volunteers have not considered.

They are working to secure cars for colleagues who need a way to get around. They are trying to set up a laundry service. And they have been making grocery deliveries.

Kelley Simmons, a senior vice president at Amegy, said that some of the folks who have survived the floods are reluctant to disclose what sort of assistance they need.

“So we’ve had to dig a little bit, push, and say, ‘No, we’ve got supplies, don’t hesitate to ask.’ Because honestly, the first thing they’re thinking about is other people,” Johnson said.

Adam Traweek, another senior vice president at the bank, is leading a team of volunteers who are ripping out wet drywall out of their colleagues’ homes. “It’s pretty grimy work,” he acknowledged.

One might not expect the disaster-relief effort to have a financial payoff for Amegy. But Steve Stephens, the bank’s CEO, said employees’ willingness to come to work at this time is connected to their confidence in the company.

As an example, he noted that 15 of the 26 people who work at Amegy’s vault have been impacted by the storm. One large commercial client of the bank had an acute need for cash at the same time that many of the vault’s staffers were watching flood waters rise.

“So to get them to say, 'I can feel comfortable with this and go to work' is largely driven by their confidence in us to deliver,” Stephens said.

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Hurricane Harvey Disaster recovery Employee engagement Employee relations Consumer banking Commercial banking Community banking Texas