First National Bank of Long Island CEO Chris Becker: Keeping Cash Flowing

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Chris Becker was named CEO of The First National Bank of Long Island in January. 

Chris Becker in January became president and CEO of The First National Bank of Long Island. We talked with him about leading a financial institution during the pandemic and the role of this nearly 100-year-old, Glen Head-based bank with 49 branches (including 10 in New York City) at a crucial time for the bank and borrowers. 

How did First of Long Island modify operations during the height of the pandemic? As the pandemic was building and spreading, we phased in limited hours. We had our employees work from behind the teller line with glass barriers. We kept our drive-up windows and ATMs open and we kept a few lobbies open. We always had our staff in.

Did you personally shift to remote work? I’m set up to work remotely at home, but I came into the office every day. We were deemed an essential business. We had most of our back-office folks working remotely from home. I came into the office. We had people dealing with the public. I wanted to be here side by side with them.

Has electronic banking accelerated? We’ve been migrating to digital channels for years. During the pandemic, transactions shifted to electronic products. Our customers can snap a picture of their check. Those volumes tripled during the pandemic.

How are branches impacted? In-person transactions have been going down for years, as electronic transactions went up. Branches have become about solving problems, asking questions, talking about new products, financial needs, and things to help their business.

Are you adding branches? We’re opening a branch in Riverhead. That should open in the fourth quarter of this year. We’ve been opening branches in Brooklyn and Queens and will continue to look for opportunities there. We continue to expand our branch network geographically. We think there’s plenty of opportunity on Long Island.

Who was borrowing during the pandemic and for what? A lot of loans were the Paycheck Protection Program loans. We did $170 million in PPP loans to our customers. We were very busy with that. We did another $600 million of payment deferrals to help our customers out during the pandemic. A lot of customers came to banks and asked for payment deferrals. I think the banking community stepped up and combined with PPP to help the country get through this shutdown.

What was it like to help with PPP loans? When we were doing the PPP loans, we put together a team at the bank. I was personally processing loans and dealing with customers. The employees were so excited to help these businesses get through the pandemic and pay their employees. I had so many employees saying how proud they were that we were here to help. People were working around the clock. We had people emailing each other at 2 in the morning. The system was open around the clock.

How do you decide who gets loans? When we underwrite a loan to determine if a person qualifies, you get current information. You take that information and determine what’s appropriate for them. You work with them to try to create a win-win situation. You have to make sure the customer has the wherewithal to pay back the loan.

How do loan volumes look now? Normal loan volumes have been down. We’re starting to see activity pick up. As Long Island opens up, we’re starting to see customers come out looking for loans. We’re starting to see that activity pick up. We’re encouraged that things are getting better on Long Island.

As more banking is done online, do banks have to work harder at security? Banks have to be mindful of cyber security and fraudsters trying to steal identities. They do that more and more through digital channels. We’re constantly investing in our security to fight cybersecurity crimes. With the pandemic and people using more electronic transactions, criminals will try to exploit that.

How do you manage stress, particularly in difficult times? Make sure you laugh every day. We have a dedicated board of directors. Even at those meetings, we make sure we have a good laugh or two. It relaxes people, helps get rid of stress. When I go home in the evening, a lot of times I put on an old sitcom and watch it for a half hour and get a good laugh. I find that laughing is the best medicine for stress for me.

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