Oct 1, 2020

In Storm of Uncertainty, Bell Bank Shines Light of Hope

Over the past 25 years, Cal and Cindy Houdek have grown their design and assembly business from just the two of them working at their kitchen table to a thriving company of 25 employees, with customers across industries.

It wasn’t easy. But through hard work, determination and hiring the right people, the Houdeks reached the point entrepreneurs dreams of – where they could step back a bit, and everything would still run smoothly.

Then COVID-19 hit.

“We were all panicking – not sure what was going to happen,” remarks Cindy, president of Stacy, Minn.-based Caltronics Design & Assembly, an electronics partner for inventors, design engineers and companies that need help getting products to market. “That was before we understood we had to stay open as an essential business.”

With stores emptied of safety supplies, Cal made sanitizer and Cindy sewed masks for their employees. At first they didn’t notice much difference beyond extra social distancing and cleaning precautions. A backlog of business kept them busy – for a time. But when only 5% of their customers remained open, Caltronics’ workload slowed drastically. Then came messages from customers unable to pay their bills. With the drop in income, it seemed more difficult decisions were ahead.

“We really needed to keep all of our people,” Cindy notes. “Good talent is hard to find.”

All Hands on Deck

It was early July before business started to pick up again. In the meantime, Cindy had started working with their banker in April on ways to weather this unprecedented and unimaginable storm. 

Chad Lindgren, president of Bell’s north central market, talked to Cindy about the Small Business Association’s (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which was offering federally guaranteed loans to help businesses keep workers employed amid the pandemic and economic downturn. Borrowers who followed certain requirements could also apply for loan forgiveness.

Banks were scrambling. It was a new program, and many bankers had more questions than answers. But Bell Bank did not hesitate.

“Very early on, our executive management team wanted to get this rolled out and provided the tools to put it together,” says Paul Flood, Bell’s SBA lending manager and a veteran SBA lender. “We didn’t really have a software system to handle this, but we put an SBA project team together and identified workflows we were able to adapt to be able to move that massive volume through the system, track applications and handle documents.”

Employees from other departments asked how they could help and were trained to assist, allowing bankers to process more than 1,300 loans in the first week the program became available.

“End to end, it was an unbelievable feat of teamwork,” Paul affirms. “It was awe-inspiring to be involved in and refreshing to experience Bell’s commitment to its customers.”

Paul had only been working for Bell two weeks before this whole process started. 

“It confirmed to me that this is the company I want to be associated with,” he notes. “I came to Bell because I’m passionate about supporting business owners and serving any way we can.”

More Than a Job

Around this time, Chad met with a business owner who was frustrated over how long his PPP loan was taking at another bank and that he hadn’t heard from his banker in a week.

“I asked him to give Bell a chance,” Chad remarks. “When I called him back an hour later with his SBA number, he was shocked – and so happy that he switched his accounts to Bell.”

Many of Bell’s employees spent all of their waking hours, seven days a week for a month, working on PPP loans.

“I would roll out of bed, sign on with cup of coffee and go until 11 or 12 at night,” Chad recalls. But for bankers like him, it wasn’t about the long hours or number of loans they were processing – it was about helping businesses keep people employed, so they could take care of their families.

Chad wasn’t only managing client relationships; like many bankers, he also spent countless hours collecting supporting materials, entering applications and getting approvals.

“Honestly, it felt more like a calling than a job,” Chad explains. “When you look at the impact, I think I helped nearly 900 employees keep their jobs. That’s what motivated me to keep going every day. Dollar amounts covered the whole spectrum, and no matter how big or small, we knew it was going to make an impact for the business and their employees.”

As of mid-July, Bell had processed over 3,200 PPP-approved loans, helping more than 70,000 people keep their jobs.

“It gave me so much purpose,” Chad notes. “Being involved on the processing side of things meant we were working on requests from Minnesota, North Dakota and Arizona. That opened up interactions with many of our team members in other markets, which made it fun and gave us context into how big this program was.  As we were all putting in the hours, there’d be side chats going on, by text and instant message, just to lift each other up. It was definitely a team effort, and we didn’t have to force it – it just naturally happened. It was really incredible to be part of.”

This all happened as Chad was gearing up to open Bell’s newest bank branch in Forest Lake on July 6.

Simple, but Significant

At Caltronics, the spring and early summer of 2020 was a stressful time for everyone. But the PPP loan they got through Bell helped them continue to pay – and keep – their employees.

“It was nice to know we had that loan we could fall back on,” Cindy affirms. “And it was comforting to know Chad would take care of us. Even if we wouldn’t have qualified for a PPP loan, I knew Chad would have stepped up and given us another loan.”

With everything else that was happening, Cindy appreciates that the loan process was so simple.

“Chad and the team at Bell made it easy,” she notes. “As a business owner, if you don’t have a strong relationship with a good banker – someone fighting for and believing in you – it’s a struggle.”

It was a time of pivoting on the fly for both Bell and Caltronics, where adjustments were needed to weather the COVID-19 storm. While neither company had been through anything like this before, both are forging ahead into a stronger tomorrow.

To learn more about Bell Bank or find a commercial lender near you, visit https://bell.bank/Business/Borrowing/SBA-Loans or call 1-800-450-8949. Learn about Caltronics at https://caltronicsdesign.com/.

*A version of this article was written for the September/October 2020 issue of Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association’s Precision Manufacturing Journal. Find the article here.