In late February, I had finished my original column for this spring edition of Partners and was preparing to attend the AgriBank Annual Meeting in Nashville, TN (AgriBank is the wholesale bank through which GreenStone and thirteen other Farm Credit associations borrow loan funds). While the coronavirus was in the news at that time, locally it appeared more like a “ripple” thousands of miles out to sea that would be of little consequence to our way of life and routines here.
On March 11, GreenStone celebrated Patronage Day and returned $100 million to our members. At the same time, that “ripple” had grown and started to look more like a tsunami getting much too close to shore. GreenStone activated its Business Continuity Plan that week and the pandemic response team began meeting every day, monitoring the situation and implementing tactics to keep our teammates AND customers safe, while still providing needed access to funding. By the end of the week, we had temporarily closed a few offices out of an abundance of caution where there were reports of someone who had been in the branch having symptoms of illness.
That part of the plan lasted only until the following week when similar reports came from more branches and chatter grew that the Governors of MI and WI may be issuing “shelter in place” orders. On March 19, GreenStone’s pandemic response team made the decision to close our physical offices effective Monday, March 23, and pivot to the virtual service delivery platform which we continue to utilize today to serve customers and transact business.
While my first and foremost concern has been on the safety and health of my family, teammates, and you, our customers, I couldn’t help but question how well “Team GreenStone” would “play” once we were forced to show up “remotely” for work that first Monday morning – from our dining room tables, breakfast nooks, spare bedrooms, basement rec rooms, you name it! By the end of that day, nearly all my anxiety had faded. It was clear, all of the planning and pre-work had prepared our teams to answer their branch phones on their laptops at home and to use our secure technology to conduct just about any kind of business they used to do from their “real” office. We all quickly adapted to WebEx video conference calls instead of meeting face to face and are sharing documents electronically to collaborate as necessary.
We still have at least one person going into each office daily for a brief period to check our drop boxes for physical documents and payments, open the mail, process customers’ payments, etc., but otherwise we are basically 100% virtual, just as we have communicated in our statement to customers “WE ARE OPEN FOR BUSINESS, but our buildings are closed.”
So why did I go into this much detail about our situation? Because I want you all to know that you are NOT alone in dealing with the impact of this crisis. We have all had to make difficult decisions on a daily – sometimes hourly – basis and spend an unknown amount of time in a pervasive environment of ambiguity and uncertainty. There are few right or wrong answers, and a tremendous amount of improvisation.
While we have a Business Continuity Plan, including a pandemic plan within it, the actual event is rarely like the models and practice runs. In fact, many of the processes and tools we have employed for this pandemic were put in place over the years to improve organizational efficiency and customer convenience. Yet, they have directly supported us in this remote experience.
We moved to laptops for all staff, put nearly all our applications in the “cloud”, increased band width and the number of ports available for remote connections, digitized many of our customer forms for electronic signatures, provided customers with My Access to do online banking, submit on line loan requests, share confidential documents securely, and more…all of that pre-work stood the test of this, hopefully, once in a lifetime situation and will likely change the way many of you do business with us for years to come.
And the change doesn’t stop there. In mid-March we also launched the State of Michigan’s long-awaited Agriculture Disaster Loan Origination Program to assist farmers who experienced losses from last year’s wet conditions. Concurrently, as unemployment numbers mounted from this year’s situation, we also implemented a payment deferral program for our customers who may be experiencing some short-term financial difficulties from COVID-19 impacts. Finally (at least as of early April when I rewrote these comments), even before the ink was dry on our standard operating procedures for the other programs, we jumped into the newly passed CARE Act SBA Paycheck Protection Program that nearly any small business with fewer than 500 employees are eligible to utilize, including farmers and agribusinesses.
Farmers are typically not eligible for SBA programs but given the magnitude of the financial impact as a result of the pandemic, Congress drafted the Farm Credit System to assist with its delivery. As with the speed of change of most of the COVID-19 actions, this program came together quickly and was announced with limited details for the lenders nor the borrowers. Information on eligibility, the interest rate, submittal instructions, loan amount calculations, etc. changed hourly at times and continue to change even as I write this to you, but we’re digging in and supporting our members.
This could sound like a time of complaining or feel like too many challenges at once, but the way I see it, it is not! This is an opportunity for GreenStone to make good on its promise to perform above expectations for its members, to put our customer first and do the right thing. We may never get another opportunity like this to really test who we are and what our organization can do if necessary. I’m certain the challenges around this pandemic aren’t over; regardless of what lies ahead, I want you to know your GreenStone team is determined to win this “championship opportunity” for you!
We will get through this! For myself, I remember Romans 8:28 “And we know all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called…” I find in times like this, we try to lean into our own understanding harder than simply coming to God and putting our faith in his sovereign power. I have no idea when we will officially declare victory over this disease, but I know the one who does, and I will do my best to keep my faith in him.
Blessings to you and your families during this difficult time!
To view the article in the online 2020 Spring Partners Magazine, click here.