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‘This is why we’re here’: How Fifth Third leveraged its 160 years to be ‘essential’ during the pandemic

  • Without a playbook, the pandemic challenged banks of all sizes to respond.
  • Fifth Third found its way by plugging itself into its role as a indispensable community institution.
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‘This is why we’re here’: How Fifth Third leveraged its 160 years to be ‘essential’ during the pandemic

When COVID-19 first hit, every financial firm had to create its own playbook for how to manage the crisis.

Even firms, like Fifth Third Bank, that have been around since the outbreak of the Spanish Flu, needed to huddle on a new plan. But while the pandemic was something new, Fifth Third has a history of rallying around customers.

"I guess there's a fair bit of institutional muscle memory in the form of a resilient business model," said Ben Hoffman, who heads up strategy and fintech at Fifth Third, at Tearsheet's recent Resilience Conference. "All the hard work that you do during the good times makes sure that your balance sheet, your customer base, and your business is prepared for the type of environment that we live in right now."

When the first effects of the pandemic were being felt, Hoffman told his team -- which includes strategy, managing the firm's venture capital portfolio, and incubating fintech partnerships -- to build expertise in this new world. He encouraged them to lean on their business models, metrics, incentives, and the firm's values.

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Fifth Third, the 14th largest bank in the U.S. ranked by assets, looked to its founding purpose. "We believe in banking," he said. "That shouldn't be a controversial statement, right? We fundamentally believe that we are an important institution in the communities that we serve. Our job is not to deliver checking accounts and mortgages and credit cards. That's just how we make money for our shareholders."

To stay connected to its customers during the crisis, the bank started sending out surveys to see how people were faring and what they wanted from their financial institution. And Fifth Third heard from its customers that they wanted their bank open and available. So, unlike many other banks with similarly-sized footprints, the bank didn't close the majority of its branches.

Fifth Third contacted a local distillery in Cincinnati to move its production line from gin to hand sanitizer to make sure it could keep its facilities open and safe. Hoffman's team had a summary of the Cares Act ready to be shared with customers when it was signed. The bank's branch employees made outbound phone calls to their 2 million customers just to check in.

"We didn't sell a lot of product during those calls," he recounted. "But we built loyalty and and relationships."

Fifth Third also learned that some of its customers customers needed help getting groceries. So, it helped them. The same held true with social services.

As its mission, Fifth Third aims to help people provide for their families, to have a safe place to live, and get paid by their employers, according to Hoffman.

"You do that, because if you want to be on the same tier as the doctor, the grocer, the EMT, rabbi and priests, you can't disappear right when your customers need you most," Hoffman said. That belief carried the firm through the crisis with a clarity of conviction.

In addition to its digital banking capabilities and a push to help customers with their PPP applications, Fifth Third leaned on its relationship banking model. The bank's top management reflected on what it means to be essential. Papers were drafted for branch employees to show to local law enforcement if they were questioned why they weren't sheltering in place.

"You are essential when the going gets tough, and you have to be there, right? You have an absolute obligation, not a privilege to come in and continue to earn a paycheck -- it's an obligation to serve," said Hoffman.

The bank also made sure to acknowledge the extra work and effort its employees were putting in, changing its internal narrative to talk more about what Hoffman calls 'the value of the utility infielder'. This type of team member is sort of an unsung hero, the person who just gets it done, when you need something done.

"We've got places where there are important jobs to be done," he said. "You've got to recognize those are important, and those people deserve to be commended for their contributions."

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