Julieann Thurlow of Reading Cooperative Bank and the Challenge of the Pandemic
As the COVID-19 pandemic raged over the past year, employees at Reading Cooperative Bank realized quickly how vital they really are.
Like other essential businesses, the community bank has been at the forefront of the crisis, offering help to those in need. Employees, led by president and CEO Julieann Thurlow, spent countless hours helping local businesses fill out paperwork for loans under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — crucial funds that were needed to keep their businesses open during the pandemic.
And they didn’t just serve their own customers; the staff at Reading Cooperative was there for all small businesses needing help with the process.
“When PPP became available, we made the decision to apply for all the community,” Thurlow said.
And that assistance didn’t just stay in Reading. Over the past year, the bank has also helped scores of businesses in Lawrence, where Reading Cooperative plans to open a new branch.
The Paycheck Protection Program is implemented by the federal Small Business Administration (SBA) and provides COVID-19 relief funds to small businesses and individuals who are self-employed if the money is used for approved purposes.
Thurlow is a member of the executive committee of the Lawrence Partnership, a group of business and community leaders in and around Lawrence, and is a member of the partnership’s Lawrence Leads program. Through those relationships, she discovered that a relatively small number of businesses in Lawrence applied for loans in the first round of the federal program last year.
A new plan emerged. In the second round, which began in January, representatives from Mill Cities Community Investments (MCCI) served as a liaison between city businesses and the bank, which then helped process applications. In the second round, as of this writing, close to 150 Lawrence businesses applied for funding.
“Thirty percent of the applications we’re processing right now are in Lawrence,” Thurlow said ahead of the March 31 deadline.
The largest concern voiced by business owners, according to Thurlow, is whether the loans are really forgivable. At a time when some businesses remain shuttered, and owners are struggling with a loss of income and worried about their ability to survive, there has been a substantial fear of taking on more debt.
Under the SBA program, the loans are eligible for full or partial forgiveness if the money is used for qualifying costs, including payroll, rent, mortgage interest, utilities, worker protection, supplier costs, operations costs and property damage costs.
As bank officials worked with the business owners, Thurlow said, there were some obstacles to overcome, including language barriers and securing the necessary documentation to submit the paperwork.
The process underscored the reasons why Reading Cooperative has chosen to open its next location in Lawrence. Bank officials balked at opening a branch in a more wealthy community where it would face rigid competition for the same client population, Thurlow said, and turned toward Lawrence, a place where business is still conducted in person and trust between parties is essential. In that community, Thurlow said, there is a huge need for residents to form a personal connection with a bank.
By assisting the city’s small business community in securing PPP loans, the bank is able to get crucial funds to those who need help the most, Thurlow added.
The opening of the Lawrence branch remains in flux amid the ramifications of the pandemic, Thurlow said. The site has been approved at the corner of Canal and Union streets.
With more than 20 members of the bank’s staff working on PPP applications, it was a true team effort, Thurlow said.
The businesses appreciated their successful operation and willingness to assist where their own banks could not. Reading Cooperative has seen a “tremendous amount” of new small business accounts being opened by nonclients they assisted, Thurlow said.
Thurlow praised the collaboration between the bank and MCCI, calling the latter a “phenomenal partner.”
“We’re happy to help,” she added.