Mark Simmons knew he'd be paying close attention to net interest margins and return on assets if he ever got a chance to lead a bank.
But if he had been told a year ago that branch cleanliness would be top of mind when he finally took the helm, he would have been perplexed.
"That would have been a head-scratcher, no doubt about it," he said.
Simmons was named CEO of $719 million-asset Southwestern National Bank in Houston in late April. He previously served as the national director of business banking for Comerica but had never been a CEO.
He is one of a number of executives who have taken the top role at banks during one of the most challenging economic times in U.S. history.
When he took over in April, the bank's staff was working 12 or 14 hours a day, six days a week to get Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans processed.
"That was the main thing I stepped into," Simmons said. "We started running from day one. It isn't what I'd hoped for, that's for sure."
But even though the U.S. had not seen a pandemic of this magnitude for a century, the idea of a recession or economic contraction is nothing new.
"From a banking perspective, you do the same things," he said.
Southwestern National quickly decided anyone who walked through its doors needing help and who qualified for a loan would be taken care of, but Simmons said some of the bank's competitors didn't take the same tack.
Particularly with PPP loans, many banks may have prioritized customers with the deepest relationships — or pockets — and didn't necessarily worry much about some others. "So there were a lot of really good companies that needed help," he said. "As we come out of this, I anticipate them being grateful, and we'll have a strong pipeline."
Jay Hendricks took over as president and CEO of $724 million-asset Village Bank in Midlothian, Virginia, in mid-August after the departure of the bank's previous chief executive, William Foster Jr. Hendricks, had been the bank's chief operating officer and chief risk officer.
Upon assuming the top role, he, like Simmons, decided employee safety and branch cleanliness were of foremost importance.
The bank also consistently had to adjust to new information, he said. Dealing with employees who might have come in contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus became job one, and Hendricks found he had to do more listening than speaking.
He said he was amazed at how quickly the company pivoted to a work-from-home policy. "Had you told me a year ago that we were going to deploy and have most of our team working remotely, I would have told you that would never happen," he said.
The pandemic accelerated digital transformation more quickly than anyone expected, Hendricks said.
"People were kind of forced into it," he said. "We're trying to find additional capabilities for our clients. So this has raised the bar in terms of what we need."
Danny Payne, a bank consultant and former commissioner of the Texas Department of Savings & Mortgage Lending, said he has been CEO for seven banks in his career, and saw different challenges in all. However, there were — and are — certain common issues, given the scope of the job.
A new CEO must stabilize the company before it can move forward, and that has never been truer than it is today, Payne said.
"Typically, there is a need for senior staff changes depending on the problems the bank had," he said. "So bringing in known quality specialists in the different areas needing immediate attention is critical."
Bringing in a quality CFO, loan workout specialists and back-room operations as quickly as possible is another priority, Payne said. An incoming, seasoned CEO typically knows where to find those people.
Candidate interest and engagement surrounding CEO jobs remains strong, said B.J. Berrettini, a banking recruiter with AJ Consultants in Kingston, Pennsylvania.
But Berrettini said the pandemic has indefinitely delayed most of the CEO searches he was working on.
"I am experiencing an uptick in active and forthcoming searches in other banking C-suite roles for a variety of reasons including retirements, revised strategic initiatives and restructuring," he said.
Trying to guide a bank for the first time during a pandemic would place a significant additional burden on a new CEO, Payne said. The leader's mindset would have to be geared toward scrutinizing traditional tasks through the lens of how the pandemic may affect them.
"I'm glad I'm retired," Payne said.