Author: Natalie Guevara, Puget Sound Business Journal
July 24, 2020
Alan Fulp is the president and chief lending officer of Liberty Bank, formerly known as Liberty Bay Bank.
At the end of last year, a decade after it was founded, Liberty Bank was ready to expand. A second office was opened in Bellevue in February 2020.
One month later, Covid-19 became a pandemic, and economic hardships hit businesses across the country. Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans became a lifeline for small businesses. It was also an opportunity for the $100 million community bank to show its strengths. Liberty Bank, formerly called Liberty Bay Bank, has secured $50 million in PPP loans for more than 300 small businesses — representing a 100% success rate for securing loans for businesses that applied with the bank.
“We had experiences where someone would come to us out of desperation because they didn’t get their application processed at their bank, and a day or two later, we would call them back and tell them they got their loan funded,” Alan Fulp, Liberty Bank’s president and chief lending officer, said. “We have people weeping on the other end of the phone. I have never seen that level of gratitude in my experience being a banker.”
Fulp talked with the Business Journal about Liberty Bank’s expansion into Bellevue and their PPP loan application process.
Why did Liberty Bank decide to expand early this year? The CEO (Richard Darrow) and I are old partners. We worked at a bank together in Bellevue, which was also a startup bank in the late ‘90s, early 2000s. He and I have been talking off and on for about a year about expanding Liberty Bank into the Bellevue/King County market. It’s not something that we just decided to do in January. It’s been something that he’s been planning for quite a long time, and I basically made the decision to join him at the beginning of this year.
Why Bellevue? (Darrow) and I both have a great familiarity with Bellevue. I have personally worked in Bellevue for more than 25 years off and on. We have a long list of contacts and familiarity with the community, so it feels very natural to us. You know, it’s always exciting to launch something new, but it can also feel daunting. Based on the response we’ve received and the demand for our PPP services from the business community, I would say it’s a pretty strong signal Bellevue needs a community bank, which there are none left. The universe definitely wants me to be doing this right now. We will serve the greater Puget Sound area from this location.
Where was Liberty Bank at the end of 2019? Liberty Bank was formerly known as Liberty Bay Bank. Liberty Bay is the body of water that serves as Poulsbo’s waterfront. We changed it at the beginning of this year to Liberty Bank because we wanted to accommodate the broader market that we are now serving. So, the bank was known as Liberty Bay Bank. It was only located on the Kitsap Peninsula, specifically in Poulsbo. We have spring-boarded off of that existing platform to launch the Bellevue bank … which is useful, because it’s a lot easier to do that than to start a bank from absolute scratch. We have $100 million of assets in Poulsbo, we have a team of really great people, it is essentially the backroom of the Bellevue expansion.
Then 2020 happens. Was there a moment that you realized Covid-19 would be the huge disruption it has become? We embarked on launching the Bellevue office in February. We have space in Bellevue Place, which is a great downtown Bellevue location. We began building our team. In March, the Covid pandemic was upon us. So, that felt daunting at the time, but very quickly that evolved into a different kind of experience for us. What happened next was, you had this unprecedented experience of all of the banks and all of the businesses having to start working remotely. Nobody is staffing their office. From my perspective, it had a way of leveling the playing field for us, being the new kids on the block.
Then comes this whole PPP loan program. We set out to get our arms around that and do a good job with that. We were working with the PPP loan program pretty much 24/7. We were all-consumed by it. There was a massive amount of loan volume to handle. We really didn’t have a lot of time to sit around and think about what may or may not happen economically. We were just busy working on this loan program. Interestingly enough, it resulted in our little operation performing a lot more volume than we would have without the pandemic. It gave us a real sense of purpose and we tackled it. … I think that we were honestly so successful at it that a lot of small businesses came to us out of frustration with their own bank where they weren’t making progress getting their loan.
One-hundred percent of the PPP applications that we took in were approved and funded. We left no one on the street curb.
What is it about your bank that has allowed you to have this kind of success with the PPP program? We have combined an electronic approval process with a human touch. When we take in an application, we always, 100% of the time, have a person-to-person dialogue with the business owner. We review their application with them rather than just submitting it through an electronic portal. We always catch mistakes on the application. What that tells me is that if their application had been submitted electronically without anybody looking at it, it would have failed, and I think that’s what a lot of people were experiencing. Instead, we took the time to meet with each and every one of our borrowers to make sure we were dealing with a legitimate business, to understand what they were trying to accomplish with the PPP loan and to make sure their documentation was correct — and that it went through the first time. That’s really the difference. It’s not that complicated. It’s just human interaction.
How did you and your team adjust to make everything happen? In the first round of (PPP) funding, the money went very quickly. It was new to everybody. We got into it with as much information as anybody else had and started doing it. We realized that the volume was going to be significant. Thankfully, our employees all agreed to work nights and weekends to process the volume. We really just did it by brute force. We had people working over Easter weekend, literally on Easter day.
Are you seeing businesses that you processed loans for as continued clients? Are they coming back to you? They are!
How have things changed for you since PPP? We are still processing PPP loans today. The next thing we are gearing up for is the forgiveness process of these loans. After that, (we’ll be) back to square one of building our bank (in Bellevue), but I think we will have a lot more wind at our back because of our success with that program.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
ABOUT ALAN FULP
Company: Liberty Bank (formerly Liberty Bay Bank)
Title: President and chief lending officer
Hometown: Kodiak, Alaska, where his father completed a career with the Navy. Put himself through college working as a salmon fisherman.
Residence: Mercer Island
Family: 3 adult children: Trevor, Tara and Jesse. Significant other, Carla Iafrate
Education: B.S. in economics and speech communication from Willamette University
Career: 40 years in banking, 25 in downtown Bellevue, including Columbia Bank when it originally launched in 1991. Founding employee of Charter Bank in the late ‘90s, which eventually sold and became part of Umpqua Bank in the Bellevue market. From 2009-2013, president and chief operating officer of Core Business Bank in Bellevue, which sold to Puget Sound Bank in 2013; 5 years at the Commerce Bank of WA in Seattle; 3 years at the Ascent division of U.S. Bank before joining Liberty to launch the new Bellevue Bank.