While the COVID-19 pandemic weakened many businesses, Kyle Kennedy says it made his stronger.

“I truly believe our culture at Bell Bank would not be as strong as it is today without the pandemic,” says the president and Phoenix banking director for Bell Bank. “The Payment Protect Program process was like trying to drink from a fire hydrant, but it unified our team, as we were all working tirelessly — literally 15-20 hours a day — toward a common purpose, which was helping businesses in our community.”

Kennedy says he witnessed an unparalleled atmosphere of hustle and grit at Bell as bank team members rallied to help as many businesses as they could.

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“And when we emerged,” Kennedy says, “we were a stronger and more cohesive team because of the experience.”

Kennedy isn’t alone. Many of Arizona’s most influential leaders in the financial services sector learned lessons about their businesses and about themselves during the pandemic. Here is a look at some of those lessons learned.

G. Vernon Babilon, CEO, Tucson Old Pueblo Credit Union: “Open communication was the key.  To allay fear and worry, I quickly formed a committee of department leaders. By utilizing information from reliable sources and sharing it with the entire staff, it was collectively decided to keep our lobbies open, with no disruption to account holders or our employees’ livelihoods.”

Vickie L. Larsen, senior vice president and market director, BOK Financial: “Communication is key. While 2020 and 2021 were unprecedented with most of us working remotely, 2022 will bring new adjustments as we all come back to the office. Stay in front with communication and do not leave it to employees to make assumptions.”

Kevin Cutter, executive vice president and regional president for Arizona and Nevada, Pacific Premier Bank: “During the pandemic, my teams quickly switched to working remotely, which led me to look for new ways to keep everyone engaged and motivated. Through this experience, I’ve learned to communicate with greater transparency, urgency and empathy.”

Ronald T. Evans, CEO, West Valley National Bank: “COVID taught everyone the importance of flexibility. This means not only operational flexibility but also flexibility in understanding the concerns of each employee, especially related to their mental and physical health.”

Robert Faver, Arizona region president, UMB Bank: “The ability to be there for people was difficult during the pandemic, and I learned to be more intentional and empathetic. I did more proactive outreach to both our clients and my colleagues and had more personal conversations to ensure they felt supported both personally and professionally.”

Patrick Joyce, Arizona commercial lending manager, Bankers Trust: “One lesson I’ll carry forward is to lead with even more empathy and kindness. COVID affected everyone differently. Bankers Trust really focused on taking care of its team members and customers while staying committed to its communities. This helped our teams stay engaged and come out of the pandemic stronger.”

Jeff Meshey, president and CEO, Desert Financial Credit Union: “COVID-19 taught us that we are capable of making significant changes to our business models much more quickly than we ever thought possible.  Let’s keep that spirit of innovation alive and embrace the technological renaissance that is occurring in our world.”

Mark Mistler, regional president for Tucson and Southern Arizona, PNC Bank: “The pandemic reinforced my belief that building strong, long-term relationships with co-workers and clients is very important. While we have been limited in our ability to be together in person, the relationships and trust built over a long period of time have been critical in getting through the pandemic.”

Don Garner, CEO, Alliance Bank of Arizona: “The pandemic proved that Alliance Bank’s relationship-based approach is more important now than ever before. As technology continues to take on a bigger role in our industry, it will never replace getting to understand our clients’ needs and goals to help them succeed in even the most stressful of times.”

Don Pearson, lead region president, Wells Fargo: “The true resiliency, perseverance and adaptability of our employees, customers and our community — it was inspiring. I learned the importance of strong leadership and teamwork. Our team worked hard to continue delivering the best possible service. I learned how much our employees and customers care about each other.  I learned the meaning of tenacity overcoming adversity.”

Dave Ralston, Arizona market CEO, BOK Financial: “Responding to the pandemic really pushed many in the organization in directions never seen before. But those who were flexible, resilient and — most importantly —  team-oriented, really stood out. While we have successfully navigated through the pandemic in a largely virtual environment, I believe our team is even more effective when we are together in a more interactive and collaborative environment.”

Wade Rasmussen, president, Amerifund: “During the pandemic, flexibility and caring for others were crucial. Whether it be with our employees working from home or with people who needed funding, having a listening ear and understanding people from their perspective was key. I’ve always believed in service with a smile and even more so — although at times masked. People can hear the smile in your voice. We all needed to laugh and smile more during the pandemic.”

Kim Reedy, president and CEO, OneAZ Credit Union: “It is critical for a leader to maintain calm, stay optimistic and provide a clear vision for the future. OneAZ Credit Union implemented programs to assist members through times of need. An omni-channel delivery system was implemented for members to serve them in-branch, online, over the phone or through video.”

Bill T. Rogers; founder, president and CEO; Homeowners Financial Group: “I’ve learned that nothing can get in the way of the caring spirit of HFG employees. Even in times of great hardship, our people continue to come together for each other. Acts of support have ranged from branches fundraising for local nonprofit organizations to sending a special care package to a fellow employee’s home after learning of a personal struggle. Every day, I am more proud of the company we have created together.”

Sandra Sagehorn-Elliott, president and CEO, Vantage West Credit Union: “I learned we are capable of more than we give ourselves credit for. When we had to move all of our non-branch employees to a work-from-home model in order to keep the business running, we did it in less than two weeks. Our team’s ability to adapt was truly impressive.”

Kim Dees, senior vice president and Southern Arizona division manager, WaFd Bank Arizona: “The biggest lesson learned through the pandemic was to slow down and focus on my team. There were many unknowns, and
our company and colleagues did not just pivot at work but at home, too. Being a leader is about more than 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; it is about the people and focusing on the wellness of others.”

Rob Schwister, Phoenix metro market president, Alerus: “There are thousands of business owners in our market who need help making good financial decisions for their company. The calls I received from frustrated business owners who were trying to get help obtaining PPP funds reinforced my belief that the services we provide our clients are essential and valued.”

Elizabeth M. Shabaker, CEO, Versant Capital Management: “Our resilience has been tested by the pandemic, but by showing up and helping others, we have revealed our ability to rapidly adapt. It has brought people together in ways we could have never imagined. The pandemic hasn’t changed who we are, but it has made us more versatile and focused on finding new ways to help others.”

Humphrey Shin, Phoenix market president, FirstBank : “I learned more about how FirstBank serves the local community. I saw some clients fall on hard times and realized that how well I do my job could affect their lives and livelihoods. I learned to be more empathetic and put ‘banking for good’ into practice, which is one of FirstBank’s core tenets.”

Stephen J. Taddie, partner, HoyleCohen Wealth Management: “People matter, and technology rocks. When people are not operating within the confines of a typical office environment, communication and having the right people in the right positions is essential. Technology can improve the client experience and the operational efficiencies of an organization. Great technology solutions improve both outcomes and makes a firm better for clients and its people.”

Gabrielle Vitale, executive vice president and chief compliance and ethics officer, American Express: “The pandemic took so much of our in-person interaction away, and it made me realize that I need to prioritize checking in with others. In doing so, I found that I have more focused, empathetic dialog with individuals, as opposed to the frequent — yet brief — interaction we had in hallways or meetings. I endeavor to keep this up.”

Trevor Wilde, CEO, Wilde Wealth Management Group: “The pandemic reinforced to me the importance of not only the team environment but also the importance of every voice on the team. Good leaders listen as much as they talk. Great leaders adjust their perspective after listening with a critical ear and create actionable change as a result.”