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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 4, 2005 17 years ago

Kindness Begets New Business

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A community banker acts against type to get his institution through hurricane chaos.
by: Adam Hughes Staff Writer

Kindness Begets New Business

By Francis X. Gilpin

Associate Editor

A Port Charlotte bank that was in the path of Hurricane Charley has emerged from the calamity rich in wisdom and new deposits.

Charles G. Brown III recently offered a few tips on how he and his employees at Charlotte State Bank did it. "While some of them may fit in that category of warm and fuzzies, they absolutely were the things that got us by," Brown says of his tips.

His audience was more than 200 fellow Florida bankers meeting last month in Tampa. With another hurricane season approaching, any one of them could be in the same spot as Brown was last August when a Category 4 storm raked his community.

As important as ordering extra cash from the Federal Reserve before the winds whip up or finding a new power source after they subside, Brown says bank executives should deal with the post-hurricane issues of staffers early on.

Five Charlotte State employees lost their homes to Charley. But it took a while for Brown and his executive team to find that out.

"Too many staff members were embarrassed or didn't want to burden us with their problems," says Brown, president and chief executive of Charlotte State. "So we wouldn't find out that someone was homeless for three days.

"It's difficult for the managers to approach these employees and make sure it didn't come off as though they were prying into their personal lives."

All five homeless employees found shelter, including one who was allowed to squat in an old house slated for demolition on a waterfront estate that had been recently acquired by a former director of Charlotte State's sister bank.

Employees filled out a list of their needs and volunteers, including Brown's wife, went shopping for food, diapers and other necessities. That way, Brown says, the workers weren't as distracted from helping Charlotte State customers.

Eventually, Charlotte State opened a makeshift general store in the main office where employees could partake of the assembled provisions, on the bank. "It was extremely well-stocked," says Brown. "It was cleaned out every day.

"That was one of the more appreciated things that we did during the storm. Employees talk about it to this day. It became a morale-builder. They saw that the bank cared."

After food, deodorant went fastest in the air condition-less summer heat.

"You'd be surprised at how little it really totaled up to, especially in the broad scheme of things," Brown told the bankers, almost apologetically.

Busting another stereotype of the frugal community banker who puts in, well, "banker's hours," Brown says his main office reopened for business the day after Charley, a Saturday. A motivated staff helped.

"It's real important to explain to your staff, you're the source of cash. The ATMs were out of money in a hurry, in hours," says Brown. "The way you handle this will reflect on your institution forevermore."

Brown says his forward-looking staffers had plenty of cash on hand, unlike a few regional banks in the area that had to close up during normal business hours. But a local radio station tested Brown's bank by erroneously announcing five days after Charley hit that Charlotte State was cashing checks from all comers.

The bank did what it could, suffered virtually no fraud loss, and even picked up new customers from among the grateful throng.

Eventually, the insurance checks started arriving. The task of taking them all in was monumental - and not only because Charlotte State's deposits grew by 47% in a 60-day period after Charley.

Many of the insurance checks were what are known as joint-payables. Not only did the insured have to endorse the check, but so did another party, typically a mortgagee.

Brown says some Homestead banks suffered five- and even six-figure losses years after Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in 1992 because of inadequate vetting of joint-payable insurance checks.

"That was fairly nerve-racking," Brown recalls of his bank's experience. "At the end of the day, it was just phone calls. It was a gut feeling, trying to talk to someone as high up as we could get to within an organization, making sure it wasn't the receptionist signing these checks."

In the weeks before the insurance money flowed into Charlotte State accounts, the bank agreed to loan payment deferrals for about 40% of its borrowers. Brown says state regulators concurred.

"There was a lot of hand-holding in our lobbies," says Brown. "There was a lot of tears shed."

Coming to work and needing to forget about the storm's aftermath for eight or more hours a day was somehow therapeutic for employees, Brown says. "That office became an island of normalcy in really an area of chaos," he says.

Due to Charley, the employees of Charlotte State, a unit of Wauchula-based Crews Banking Corp., have gained a measure of confidence in the emergency planning of their bosses on a very practical level.

"This sounds funny," says Brown, "but covering your computers with trash bags works."

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