Eight months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is still recovering. And Camille Burckhart is still working on what she can to help people rebuild.

As chief information and digital officer at Popular Inc., Burckhart's role is mostly in the office and boardroom. But in the aftermath of the Category 4 storm, she and her team spent days in the field, figuring out how to get banking services to those who needed them.

"For Popular, bringing back our branch and ATM network, call centers and offices became essential to ensuring people had access to buy food, gas and other important goods," Burckhart said. "Working at a bank day in and day out, you might forget how important of a role we play in people's lives."

Their efforts cannot be overstated, since the company occupies a key role in the island's economy: Its Banco Popular claims to have 56% of the deposits in Puerto Rico and 49% of the net loans, as of year-end.

A week after Hurricane Maria, despite islandwide communication and electrical outages, Popular had 53 of 168 branches and 150 of 635 ATMs in service, as well as all digital channels. For her work in the recovery effort and her leadership on Popular's technology initiatives, Burckhart has been selected as one of American Banker's 2018 Digital Banker of the Year finalists.

One of the ideas that gave Popular a way to help immediately was to take a trailer with an ATM built for promotional events and retrofit it for disaster duty. Burckhart's team equipped the trailer with generators and installed antennas from a satellite internet company so it could be online even in remote parts of the country.

"This may not sound like rocket science, but in a post-hurricane reality where there is no power or telecommunications, this was a challenge," Burckhart said. "It became a godsend to citizens who had been driving for hours to get cash during days where gas was scarce."

With fewer than 20% of the point-of-sale terminals working throughout the island, most businesses were unable to take credit and debit cards for transactions. That meant many people needed to go to the bank for cash.

Like other businesses, Popular had electronic challenges, but devised a plan that enabled customers to make withdrawals. It opened branches and had employees manage transactions and account balances offline and manually.

Once the hurricane ended, more than 40 employees on the technology team volunteered to come into work, with shifts starting at 2 a.m. After completing a systems batch run, they prepared encrypted laptops for delivery to their assigned branch by opening time. The laptops held the most updated account balances for customers, to allow them to access cash even without an operating network in place.

"To me, this is innovation at its best," Burckhart said. "It's about devising new ways of solving real-life problems. Designing ideas such as this one, and being an active participant of it, by visiting branches and working as a volunteer alongside branch employees, was one of the most rewarding professional experiences I've had."

Camille Burckhart, chief information and digital officer at Popular Inc.
Camille Burckhart, chief information and digital officer at Popular Inc.


With fewer than 20% of the point-of-sale terminals working throughout the island, most businesses were unable to take credit and debit cards for transactions. That meant many people needed to go to the bank for cash.

Like other businesses, Popular had electronic challenges, but devised a plan that enabled customers to make withdrawals. It opened branches and had employees manage transactions and account balances offline and manually.

Once the hurricane ended, more than 40 employees on the technology team volunteered to come into work, with shifts starting at 2 a.m. After completing a systems batch run, they prepared encrypted laptops for delivery to their assigned branch by opening time. The laptops held the most updated account balances for customers, to allow them to access cash even without an operating network in place.

"To me, this is innovation at its best," Burckhart said. "It's about devising new ways of solving real-life problems. Designing ideas such as this one, and being an active participant of it, by visiting branches and working as a volunteer alongside branch employees, was one of the most rewarding professional experiences I've had."

Banks took some "ingenious steps" to keep operations going in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, said Glen Manna, director of U.S. regional and Puerto Rico bank coverage at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.

Also read about our other Digital Banker of the Year honorees:

"I would hope people realize banks on the island really have embraced technological integration throughout their systems, and that provided a foundation that helped them to respond faster when the crisis hit," Manna said. "If life is not yet back to normal, at least the financial mechanics of the system seem to be working well."

Even before the storm, Popular had taken measures to ensure it was fiscally secure, said Steve Hanke, a professor of applied economics and co-director of the Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise at Johns Hopkins University.

Because it shed a lot of its nonperforming loans beforehand, the bank was better positioned to handle the inevitable rise in loan trouble in the wake of the hurricane, along with the increase in other expenses, Hanke said.

"In my analysis of the bank, they detected a potential problem and mitigated any damage from that," he said, referring to a study of Popular he did.

"They got their balance sheet in shape before the hurricane," and moved quickly to solve the problem of serving customers after the hurricane, he said. "From everything I've seen, they've been fast on their feet."

Camille Burckhart participates in charitable activities with Popular for Make a Difference Day, such as this renovation at the Humane Society of Puerto Rico in Guaynabo.
Camille Burckhart participates in charitable activities with Popular for Make a Difference Day, such as this renovation at the Humane Society of Puerto Rico in Guaynabo.

But at times, Burckhart admitted, it was tough on her personally.

One challenge was deciding how to divvy up resources. Operating in Puerto Rico and the continental United States meant Popular needed to continue being able to serve its customers stateside, despite the crisis at home. When forecasts determined a major storm was approaching the island, some technology team members left to work from offices in New York and New Jersey.

"To ensure that our operations for Popular Bank in the U.S. could continue to run, most of these employees traveled before the hurricane hit," Burckhart said. "This meant that through the hurricane and for weeks after, most had little to no communication with family members. It was tough, since all employees working remotely in the U.S. told us their heart was in the island."

Burckhart said she managed her emotions by focusing on the demands of the bank and what she could do next to help.

Though the disaster demands continue, not everything on her agenda has to do with Hurricane Maria.

In January, she helped relaunch Eloan to serve as Popular's fintech arm and operate as a stand-alone digital-only brand.

Launched in 1997, Eloan was an early pioneer in online lending. It was acquired for $300 million by Popular in 2005. Subsequently, it shifted away from lending and began offering CDs and savings accounts, as Popular sought to increase its deposit base.

As part of its reinvention, Eloan now includes financial management and budgeting tools. Customers can use a tool to compare how the size of a monthly loan payment varies depending on the length of time to repay and the interest rate. There are also informational videos to advise customers on how to spend their money wisely and even offer some guidance for home renovation projects.

Eloan gives Popular another way to appeal to mobile users — an area of focus for Burckhart's team. This is driven by trends in customer use: More than 770,000 of Popular's 1.3 million customers — or 60% — are active in digital banking, meaning they use the service at least once a month, and 80% of those active customers connect using mobile devices more often than they use a desktop computer, Burckhart said.

Mobile payments also get heavy use at Popular. ATH Móvil, its real-time transfer service, counts over 1 million customers and almost 900,000 weekly transactions. That's partly because a total of 5.4 million expats from Puerto Rico live in the states and many of them regularly send remittances to the island to help relatives.

"Our teams study data to understand our clients' behaviors and needs, and design to solve those specific problems and challenges," Burckhart said. "If the experience is better through a mobile device, the switch from traditional channels occurs naturally."

Having to invest in getting the technology operational again after Hurricane Maria provided an opportunity for Burckhart to upgrade the back office. Many repetitive tasks were still done manually — her team identified over 40 manual processes that are now being automated. One of those is tied to making sure Popular doesn't run afoul of sanctions from the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

"As an example, we implemented automation to help our employees match for OFAC sanction lists," Burckhart said. "The process took us 180 days with up to 50 employees, often working overtime. As soon as the software was implemented, the process went down to 25 days and is expected to reduce further as it continues to be improved and enhanced."

Manna said a shift to paperless transactions will help banks in Puerto Rico serve their customers better. "A lot of people on the island still pay their mortgages at the bank or use physical checks," he said.

He added that Popular's earnings report for the first quarter demonstrates its resiliency. Loan losses were less than expected. Revenues are back to normal. Its stock is trading higher than it was before the hurricane.

"They did a really good job getting out there, reaching out to customers and seeing if they needed help throughout the crisis," Manna said. "We can see the results in how things are going now. Activity is returning to levels pre-storm. That's a good thing for the island and a good thing for longer-term recovery."

After a year of loss, the sacrifices, big and small, were worth it, Burckhart said.

"I cannot begin to explain how proud I felt to see Popular employees embrace an all-hands-on-deck approach, regardless of personal situation, including employees who lost their homes. From employees driving to remote parts of the island to deliver food and water, to senior managers helping at gas stations to ensure our employees could get gas, everyone volunteered to do whatever was needed to help our fellow citizens return to a new normal."

Suleman Din

Suleman Din

Suleman Din is technology editor of American Banker and Financial Planning. Follow him on Twitter at @sulemandn.