PPP made a difference for Frank Leta Auto Group
“Businesses like ours have lots of choices when deciding where to bank,” explains Steve. “Our PPP experience reminded us how valuable it can be to work with a relationship-based bank like Commerce.”
Steve Brown, General Manager
Frank Leta Auto Group
Businesses change banks for all sorts of reasons. Until 2020, however, few of those reasons had anything to do with a global pandemic.
But the coronavirus pandemic was, at least in part, the impetus behind Frank Leta Auto Group’s decision to move its banking relationship to Commerce Bank earlier this year. The auto dealer operates Honda, Acura and Mitsubishi dealerships in the St. Louis area, along with a pre-owned vehicle sales business.
When a statewide stay-at-home order tied to the coronavirus took effect April 6, the impact on the auto dealer was immediate.
“The service and repair businesses at our new car dealerships were considered essential businesses in St. Louis County, so they stayed open,” explains Steve Brown, Frank Leta’s general manager. New car sales at these dealerships were also allowed to continue operating, based on the premise that customers whose repairs exceeded the value of their vehicle would need an alternative. Because Frank Leta’s pre-owned business did not have a service arm, however, it had to remain closed.
“A new car is a major purchase any time,” explains Michael Brown, the automotive group’s chief financial officer. “In a period of economic uncertainty and sudden high employment, it’s a purchase easily delayed.” Add to that practical concerns for social distancing in the workplace and the pandemic’s constraints on new car manufacturing. The auto dealer had little choice but to furlough about half of its 270 employees.
The announcement of the federal Payroll Protection Program (PPP) in late March was good news to the automotive group’s leaders, who were eager to participate. They approached their former bank to begin the application process.
“Of course, we weren’t the bank’s only customer interested in a PPP loan,” Michael explained. “Our bank was not prepared for the volume of applications, and we were just another company on the list.”
That’s when Steve thought of Commerce, where he had personally banked for more than two decades. He reached out to his banker and asked for PPP guidance. Days later, Frank Leta had submitted four separate applications to the Small Business Administration – one for each of its four dealerships – just in time for the first round of PPP funding.
Less than 72 hours later, the applications had been approved and the PPP funds deposited in the business’ bank account.
“For us, the PPP program performed exactly as it was designed,” said Steve. “It gave us the liquidity we needed to pay our employees and maintain benefits for those who were furloughed.”
By the end of April, St. Louis County was beginning to allow people back to work, and Frank Leta started recalling furloughed staff. By late summer, new car production was largely back to normal and used car sales were back. “We aren’t where we would normally be,” says Michael. “But we are getting there.”
During this same period, Frank Leta Auto Group also began the process of transitioning its banking business to Commerce.
“Commerce’s responsiveness and involvement in the PPP process made all the difference for our application,” explained Michael. “They knew what they were doing.”
“Coming from a larger bank, the personal attention we got from Commerce is what we were looking for,” adds Steve. “It was time to make the switch.”
“We want to work with a bank that understands that automotive dealers have different operations and needs than other small- and medium-sized business,” he continues. “Commerce is sensitive to our needs and treats us like we treat our own customers. In our business, personal relationships matter.”