Nancy Papaioannou, the first Greek female president of a bank in the United States, spoke with Greek Reporter this week in a wide-ranging, exclusive interview touching on the economic reality of doing business in the post-pandemic world.
“Things have changed tremendously for our industry,” she admits at the outset. “One factor is the flattening of basic interest rates, by which we value our profits. But this happened before (prior to the pandemic).
“What really changed is the way we conduct business, how we create sales,” she explains. “We have so many employees in the New York area that are working from home. We have 50% of the normal amount of people who are working in the branches. We have half of the staff we had before. Is this the new normal?” she asks rhetorically.
Papaioannou says that the new way of doing things, with many people now telecommuting, poses many problems. “As a manager, I cannot see how much work is being done from home – who puts more effort into it, the people who are in the office or the people who are working from home?”
The Greek-American banker recently took part in a brainstorming seminar with other executives from other financial institutions who described their current operations, using their back offices from which they can communicate effectively with clients. Such operations, she says, were not hampered by the pandemic nearly as much as those of banks, which are for the most part dependent on branches for their day to day business functions.
Some prefer to do banking, other business, face-to-face — even during pandemic
Banks must either pay rent on each branch or own each branch building — and that adds up, she explains. Some banking simply cannot be done remotely, and that fact is one that every bank has had to deal with over the past year.
Covid, she says, has changed the way Greeks and Greek-Americans interact with each other, among so many other aspects of our lives today, she adds. “We like to hug, we like to kiss, and we have a different mentality, how we grew up and express our emotions. This Covid will change the way we act.
“Thank God we had all this support, tremendous support from the community, the church and our clients, all these months. I was very happy, as I was going around to the branches, to see how busy the branches were — even at 50% capacity. I believe the Greek-American community that we primarily serve has the common characteristic of wanting to check things out,” she says.
They want that face-to-face contact, and “that kind of contact is the primary factor” in sales and other business, she believes.
“When the American government gave out the SBA and PPP loans I think we were the only bank giving out these types of loans (in this area). Thank God our mother company, the New York Community Bank, had the mechanism and funding to make that possible through the SBA. We worked through Covid, close to our community, and tried to find ways to support them.
“Tremendous support” from the community during difficult year
“There are some businesses affected much more than others during the pandemic,” she adds, “especially restaurants and hotels, and that is a sector that many Greek-Americans work in,” she says.
The 50% of employees who are not currently working for Atlantic Bank, she says, were able to stay employed, as the Bank’s mother company was able to maintain the workforce during all these extremely difficult months.
In addition to this, she says, she sees a great number of hopeful signs on the horizon, including “A new captain, a new, young, an energetic person” in Thomas Cangemi, who has now taken the reins as chairman of New York Community Bank. The bank has even acquired a new financial institution, Flagstar Bank Corp, based out of the Midwest, in the midst of what has been a very difficult year for most businesses.
With this deal, she says, “when it closes at the end of the year, that will make us even bigger.” Not only that, but Atlantic Bank will once again, after that merger, become a commercial bank, as it was in the beginning.
As the new commercial bank of the NYCB, she says, Atlantic Bank “has a tremendous vision for the future. Our bankers, our employees, our managers, are fully oriented toward being a commercial institution, and I am very happy for that and I will help the whole branch system of the whole NYCB banking family in that way.
“The way banking is, and the challenges that banking faces, you can’t survive unless you are big — and you become big by acquiring. And after almost a whole year of shutting down business, not a lot of banks can acquire other banks,” she noted with pride. “Thank God our bank was very conservative and we were able to do that.”
Asked by Greek Reporter what her impressions are of New York City now, and how it has come through the pandemic, she is pragmatic and realistic.
America’s largest city suffered much more than any other American city from Covid-19, from the sheer number of dead it incurred to the economic havoc wreaked by the shutdowns. “New York City is not what it used to be,” she admits. “Unfortunately, hotels and theaters are completely closed. And even each day, when they start opening… there is just no tourism in New York.
New Yorkers head out of the city for the suburbs — and beyond
“I don’t know about June first or July 4th, or whatever date they state (as the date slated for full reopening) — we’ll be facing a lot of issues, because the city is just not the same,” she says.
She uses her commute as an example. In the past, she relates, it used to take her an hour to get into the office every weekday. Now, when she leaves home at 7:30 — or even 7 :00 — it takes two hours. This, she says, is because of two primary reasons, Firstly, “people don’t take trains or buses anymore. They are too afraid.
“But the biggest factor is that after Covid, people just moved out of the big high-rise buildings and outward, towards Queens County, Suffolk County, Douglaston, and so on. Those factors affect the traffic so much because everybody is going to their offices by car.
“Also, people say that if you’re vaccinated you don’t need to wear a mask… I’m afraid not to wear a mask, even though I’ve been vaccinated,” she admitted. “You still run the possibility of getting covid, although it may be less virulent.”
She went through the vaccination process and took all possible precautions in her banks, she said, because she “wanted to be proactively secure. Life has changed; business has changed.”
“Do we need so many retail stores?”
However, she said assuringly, “We will survive. We need to look ahead. It’s a big lesson, what we went through. Is it behind us? I want to hope so. We have the experience in how to handle this, how to protect ourselves and our people. ”
Asked about the huge economic gains that have been made in the first quarter of 2021, as a giant reserve of pent-up demand has already led to enormous increases in the sales of consumer goods and services, Papaioannou replied “we excel in purchasing goods and services online.”
As an example, she says, she could simply not find turkey in the grocery store this past Thanksgiving and had to turn to the internet to order it. But it did indeed arrive, in just 24 hours, with what she calls “amazing packaging, and an amazing product.”
However, she notes, this is another industry that will be hit hard by the many changes in the way people purchase items now, including shopping centers and retail stores. “On the other hand,” she muses, “I think sometimes, do we need so many retail stores? Do we need so many clothing stores? Or even food stores?
“So perhaps I think we are getting an adjustment, a good adjustment of our society. We will see. I believe after this summer that things will be in place. We will see permanent changes, or the permanent ways of doing business — or living — going forward.”
“The winners will be the smarter players” in business world after pandemic
And if, she says, something like last year happened again, “we will know how” to deal with the issues posed by a pandemic.
Asked about the percentage of businesses that are surviving today because of the great deal of help, including PPP loans and SBA loans, that they received from the federal government, she says that is really not the way to best view the issue.
“It’s not the problem of the government that Covid hit the economy. It has to do with the willingness of the business owners, that they try to protect their business and try to utilize the money in the right way; to be able, as soon as they reopened, to face demand and provide a good quality of service and product.
“In other words, businessmen should not take the loans just to pass another quarter with the money, then lay off their employees, maybe keep one or two, then rehire them. We see it happening a lot. The thing is, yes, the American government helped businesses, reviving and going through very difficult challenges this past 18 months.
“However, the smarter businessmen will utilize this money the right way — not only to maintain their employees but be ready for the final phase of this period, to start working again and be smarter and be ready. I think the winners will be the smarter players. I believe the American government did its part to help businesses.
“Now it’s up to the businesses to find ways to be ready,” she states. “Because we are going to start working normally again — or as close as is possible to what is considered normal.”