Better Days Ahead: Tennessee Banks Step Up to Help Small Businesses with PPP Loans Amid Pandemic

By Stacey Langford

The last few months have been a time of turbulence and triumph for the Tennessee banking industry. While “unprecedented” has become the word to describe daily events, there is no more descriptive word for the situation. From the late March passage of the CARES Act that included a framework for an unprecedented federal program injecting $350 billion in fully forgivable loans into the small business economy, to the systematically flawed launch of the Paycheck Protection Program on April 3, and with guidance seeping out of Treasury and the Small Business Administration day by day well after the initial round of funding had been exhausted—one theme emerged. Bankers worked night and day, week days and weekends, tirelessly and passionately seeking relief for their struggling customers through the Paycheck Protection Program.

BankTennessee and Jim's Place Grille, Collierville
Powell Valley National Bank and Chef's Pizzeria, Kingsport
Peoples Bank of the South and Pyro Shows, LaFollette
Pinnacle Financial Partners and Tennessee Kidney Foundation, Nashville
Citizens National Bank and Anakeesta, Gatlinburg

BankTennessee and Jim's Place Grille, Collierville

Set to celebrate his restaurant’s centennial anniversary next year, James Taras knew that he could not let the health pandemic derail the legacy of his business. Jim’s Place Grille, originally located in downtown Memphis, has been family owned and operated since 1921. The restaurant moved to Collierville 15 years ago and kept in place the family’s mission of creating a memorable dining experience for customers and tradition of maintaining a family ownership presence every single day. 

Jim’s Place Grille was greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. During their six-week forced closure, they worked towards operating as efficiently as possible by accepting to-go orders and using curbside pickup and delivery services. Employing 40 people on average, the restaurant sought guidance from their banker, Wright Cox, and ultimately obtained funds through the Paycheck Protection Program. 

Taras described the PPP funds as a lifeline for the business, offering a means of liquidity and a way to provide employment to his staff during the unprecedented time of closure. “It allows us to operate until we restore some sort of normalcy in operating as a dine-in establishment again,” Taras said. 

Cox has been working with the restauranteurs since they came to Collierville. He was eager to assist the small business and avoid risking the loss of an institution that means so much to the community. He said that in the last 15 years, “Jim’s has become a part of the fabric of our community.” 

Taras and his team are grateful for that relationship. “It was a blessing to receive the PPP funds and the hard work and diligence by the team at BankTennessee has paid off in a big way,” Taras said. For him, it was important to receive the loan not just to allow employees to continue receiving a paycheck but also to instill confidence in their employees that they can love coming to work at Jim’s Place Grille for as long as they are able. Now, patrons can hope Jim’s Place serves the community for another 100 years.

Powell Valley National Bank and Chef's Pizzeria, Kingsport

In his 1981 inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan said, “Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes, they just don’t know where to look.” The Tennessee banking community found one hero in the midst of the Paycheck Protection Program chaos—Mary Beth Baker from Powell Valley National Bank. Through a display of passion for banking at its most fundamental level, Baker found the stamina to help her customers, inspire other bankers, and answer email after email with technical questions related to the “P3” from bankers across the state who she had never met. 

Looking at the past few weeks, Baker feels “If there has ever been a time for community banks to step forward and be the resource we pride ourselves in being, it has been at no greater time than the present.”

This was driven home to Baker early into the PPP rollout. She contacted her customer, Steve LaHair, by phone on Sunday, April 5, to let him know she had secured SBA approval and PPP funds for his company. LaHair expressed his sincere appreciation, saying his staff is his family and telling Baker she and her bank had just helped not only 26 employees, but 26 families.

Steve and Trida LaHair are the owners of Chef’s Pizzeria, a mom-and-pop restaurant originally founded in 1991 serving the Tri-Cities area. For the pizzeria, the economic impact of the pandemic was felt immediately. In one week’s time, sales dropped 30%, and they lost catering commitments for more than 2,000 people. The decline in revenue forced them to reduce their employees’ hours and close their dining room. Seeking PPP assistance helped the owners meet their overall goal—continue to pay their team members. Steve and Trida realized that the restaurant not being open for normal operations would not change the fact that their employees’ bills would still be due for payment and they would continue to have other financial needs to support their families. “Without keeping our employees employed, we would not be able to sustain our business through this crisis,” they said. 

As the team lead for Powell Valley National Bank, Baker shared the impact of the PPP with her team, highlighting what a special opportunity they had been given through the program and what a contribution it would allow them to make in their communities. From their efforts, they have helped more than 300 small businesses and 3,000 employees across East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. But, Baker notes, “In addition, and most importantly, we have helped over 3,000 families.”

Peoples Bank of the South and Pyro Shows, LaFollette

The Tennessee Bankers Association commemorated its 125th anniversary during the Annual Meeting held at West Virginia’s Greenbrier Resort in 2015. The signature event of the convention was a captivating firework display to celebrate the TBA and its member bankers. That experience was orchestrated and executed by LaFollette, Tenn.-based Pyro Shows.  

Pyro Shows was started in 1969 by Lansden Hill, and the company has grown to become a top provider of professional firework entertainment in the Southeastern United States, and even throughout the world. In March, business came to an abrupt halt when the COVID-19 pandemic ceased all public gatherings in America.  

Faced with the harsh reality that there would be no revenue production for the foreseeable future, Hill began the difficult task of devising a plan to help the business stay alive. “We began planning a method to shut down our operations as the money was running out,” said Hill. “We reduced employees to a 32-hour work week and were in the process of trying to decide how to find a way to send our employees home and maintain their benefits.”

The Paycheck Protection Plan was just the lifeline that Pyro Shows needed to curtail the pending devastation for his employees. Pyro Shows employs 40 full-time individuals, an additional 30 summer seasonal employees, and provides W2s to an additional 700 other pyrotechnicians that shoot fireworks on behalf of Pyro Shows throughout the country. “All of our employees have special skills,” Hill noted. “To lay off those individuals would be a great hardship on the employees because their specialized experience would not easily be adaptable at their rate of pay elsewhere in the LaFollette economy.”  

Instead of planning the reduction in payroll and possibly restructuring the debt of the business in order to survive, they worked closely with Peoples Bank of the South to secure a PPP loan that allowed Pyro Shows to return their full-time employees to a full 40-hour week.  

Obtaining the loan didn’t come easy though. As Hill describes it, his bankers “went to bat for us with great focus and intensity. They helped us at every turn to prepare the proper paperwork and submit it to the federal government.” For the team at Pyro Shows, “bankers’ hours” is no longer the tongue-in-cheek expression it once was. “My new definition of ‘bankers’ hours’ means that your banker will work on your behalf 24 hours per day and seven days per week.”

Pinnacle Financial Partners and Tennessee Kidney Foundation, Nashville

Tennessee Kidney Foundation (TKF) serves a clientele of medically and financially vulnerable individuals in 42 Tennessee counties whose situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic shutdown. For TKF, a 501c3 with a full-time staff of four, a reduction in revenue and tempered fundraising efforts could not have come at a worse time – a time when their services are needed more than ever. 

TKF’s four core programs include transportation assistance to life-saving dialysis treatments for individuals with kidney disease; emergency economic assistance for kidney patients who need temporary help with the costs of housing, medication, food or utilities; free preventive kidney health screening; and community education about kidney health. According to CEO Heather Corum Powell, TKF screened more than 500 individuals last year for kidney disease and provided more than 60,000 trips to dialysis, emergency economic assistance for 100 families, and education for more than 1,000 people.

With the inability to host their largest annual fundraising event in April—a gala that typically draws more than 600 in attendance—Powell knew they would face both immediate and ongoing financial challenges. She saw the Paycheck Protection Program as the support she needed to lead her organization through the crisis. “We determined right away that a PPP loan would help ensure we could maintain our program delivery to our most vulnerable clients without sacrificing human resources,” Powell said. “At the end of the day, our program quality and efficiency of delivery would suffer if we were faced with reducing our already-small team, so we wanted to be proactive to guard against those kinds of budget cuts.” 

TKF has banked with Keri McInnis at Pinnacle Financial Partners for several years, and McInnis was eager to help TKF obtain a PPP loan. “Many businesses have seen their cashflow drop to zero or close to it, and they need a lifeline to help them get through the short-term,” McInnis said. “That’s especially true for most nonprofits. Many operate leanly and are seeing charitable contribution budgets shrink and focuses shift to pandemic-related causes. The PPP is helping them meet essential costs and keep their staff on board.”

For Powell, the most significant impact from the PPP is in service to the community. “At a time when the need for TKF’s programs is greater than it has ever been in the 48-year history of the organization, we’re meeting those needs and expanding rather than contracting direct assistance programs,” she said. 

There will be difficult decisions ahead for the Foundation, but the team will be able to face those challenges together and focus on the organization’s mission knowing that their paychecks are secure and that her banker will be with her each step of the way.

Citizens National Bank and Anakeesta, Gatlinburg

The Great Smoky Mountains received an estimated 12.55 million visitors last year, setting a park record for the fifth straight year. In April and May 2019 alone, 1 million visitors traveled to the park each month. It is safe to say that 2020 will not be a record-setting year. And Tennessee’s tourism capitol, Sevier County, is bearing the brunt of it with the national park closure and elimination of leisure travel during the pandemic. 

In 2017, Anakeesta opened on 70 acres of forestland nestled above downtown Gatlinburg, Tenn. Described as a mountaintop experience where visitors can play, eat, shop and relax, Anakeesta honors its Cherokee name by celebrating the authenticity, heritage, and natural beauty of the land.  

As the business bank for Anakeesta, Citizens National Bank, Sevierville, has worked side-by-side with owners and co-founders Bob and Karen Bentz as they pursued their dream. “They believe in our community and their employees and have been a great asset in continuing to make Gatlinburg a top tourist destination,” said Jason Holliman, president at Citizens National Bank. 

On March 20, Anakeesta closed. Projecting a loss of $7 million in revenue in the coming months, they made the difficult decision to lay off 90% of their 225-member team. The Bentzs were desperate for a safety net that would provide support to the team and their families. The Paycheck Protection Program offered just that. 

Their banker at CNB, Kendall Polk, guided them successfully through the PPP process, making himself available night and day to answer questions regarding the application and working to ensure they understood the requirements for loan forgiveness.  For Bob Bentz, “receiving this loan meant that we could continue to support our staff during this unprecedented time, which we did not think would be otherwise possible. The loan will have a lasting impact on the future success of the company.” 

With the PPP funding secured, Anakeesta is bringing their employees back to work, and is thankful to have that opportunity. When visitors once again answer the call of the mountains—as we know they will—the team at Anakeesta will enthusiastically welcome them. Bob has found the reaction by his hard working-team to be two-fold. “First, they are happy to be employed again, and second, they are eager to refocus on something productive.

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