By Stephen Roginson
This op-ed originally appeared on Medium.
“For The Last 170 Years, Our Customers Come First.”
This is the slogan of Comerica Bank, a long-standing local institution that fancies itself a guardian of the Detroit and Michigan financial communities. But that sentiment died this month when process came first and customers came up empty-handed.
Comerica has let down its small business customers during a time of crisis. I know, because I am one of them. Comerica was underprepared and understaffed on their Small Business Administration lending team. It lacked the interest and commitment (or creativity and flexibility) to deploy any of their 8000+ employees to aid their small business customers as they sought to tap into federal Covid-19 Relief Funds, funds badly needed by small businesses to continue serving their customers during this crisis.
After spending two weeks mulling efficiencies and delaying execution, Comerica barely managed to realize a conclusion that was self-evident at the outset.
On April 16, just hours after these Covid-19 Relief funds had been deployed — to such ‘independent’ main street institutions like Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse chain — Comerica finally followed up with some customers to confirm that they would be “handling their applications manually.”
Instead of rolling up their sleeves and acting quickly to help customers access the benefits of the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), Comerica was immobilized by complexity, choosing rather to spend time developing an elaborate portal to automate applications. The end result? The first wave of PPP funds had evaporated before their automated portal had seen the light of day.
My relationship with Comerica has run deeper than just as a customer or their serving as my SBA lender.
Located in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit, my small business Batch Brewing Company has been used as an example of positive change and ongoing investments in one of Detroit’s neighborhoods. In 2013, Batch Brewing Company won the Comerica Hatch Detroit Contest, a business incubator competition that awarded my business a $50,000 prize. In 2017, we were courted by Comerica to apply for a loan to grow our operation, and afterward I sat on panels hosted by Comerica discussing their commitment to small business in Detroit. In 2018, I became Hatch Detroit’s first alumni board member, further aligning myself with the belief that Comerica was dedicated to helping small businesses in Detroit.
I was wrong.
Since Comerica’s failed PPP roll out, I’ve resigned my board seat at Hatch Detroit, an organization I hold dear. While Hatch Detroit only receives contest prize money from Comerica and no other operational funding, Comerica uses Hatch Detroit as a marketing platform to demonstrate their small business bonafides. I cannot in good conscience allow Hatch Detroit’s work to be used as a fig leaf. And by remaining a board member, I too was that fig leaf.
Comerica’s sponsorship of Hatch Detroit is simply that — a marketing spend. Comerica demonstrated their true commitment to small business by not working diligently to accept PPP loan applications from all of their small business customers.
Comerica must now immediately mobilize the full weight of their organization to assist the most vulnerable part of our economy: the small businesses that serve our neighborhoods. They must prioritize community economic health over their own profits in the short term if they want to have banking relationships with us in the long term.
Comerica failed to put its money where its mouth is. Its small business customers have been left behind, and this one has been left looking for a new banking partner in the middle of a financial crisis.
Stephen Roginson is the owner of Batch Brewing Company and a resident of Detroit. Opened in 2015, the brewery has been routinely voted as one of Detroit’s best. He’s also the founder of the Feelgood Tap, a nonprofit dedicated to helping fund other Michigan nonprofits through craft beer sales.
Main image: Jason Williams (left), Chef Matt Johnson (center), and Stephen Roginson (right), courtesy of Batch Brewing