CEO of new Dime Community Bank says more help is needed for local businesses due to COVID-19

The past five months have been like no other for Kevin O’Connor, CEO of BNB Bank. In March, COVID-19 reared its ugly head, quickly followed by the collapse of hundreds of businesses in towns and hamlets across eastern Long Island and the loss of hundreds of jobs.

By spring, the federal Payroll Protection Program kicked in, and BNB began working with thousands of businesses to protect their employees. At one point, more than 150 BNB employees, nearly all working from home, were talking to business owners across the region as they applied for PPP loans through the bank.

“It was almost around the clock,” said Mr. O’Connor. “These were mostly small businesses, many longtime family-run businesses, trying to survive … This was one chance for bankers to really help people who didn’t know where to turn — lots of small businesses that represented people’s life’s work.”

Within a matter of weeks, BNB handled 4,000 PPP loans worth more than $1 billion as some businesses, and then others, slowly began to reemerge from the shadows of the pandemic into the local economy. In July, BNB Bank and Dime Community Bank announced a merger valued at $489 million, a move that extended BNB’s traditional home on the East End to the rest of Long Island, Queens and Brooklyn. 

Mr. O’Connor is now CEO of the new entity, Dime Community Bank.

“We were trying to figure out strategically how to move forward,” he said. “We were based on the East End and now we’ve moved east to west … We are a $5.5 billion bank.” With the merger the new entity became a $12 billion bank.

Then, in August, Mr. O’Connor contracted COVID-19 — the very virus that had collapsed the regional economy. “I had mild symptoms,” he said. “But I was out for two weeks.” He said he came to fully appreciate what people were going through as he struggled with the virus himself.

Now back to work, Mr. O’Connor surveys the Long Island business landscape with a close eye on the area where he started, the East End.

“The East End is reasonably strong,” he said. “I don’t know how many people who abandoned New York City will stay out there, so that impact on the economy will be felt. There will be pop-up schools. The loss of business travel has impacted the middle of the island. There is still government money available, but I worry about that slowing down. We could be hit with another low point, or a resurgence of the virus.”

At the newly merged bank, employees have begun to return to the workplace. But many questions remain on how the next few weeks will shake out. 

“We want to bring people back,” he said. “We want to mentor people, help people grow. But how will our employees deal with schooling for their kids? Some schools are doing half days and other kinds of schedules. We will have to adjust the way we work, but we also have branches that need to be open.

“And there are businesses that are still in trouble,” he added. “Restaurants, gyms, they could use more help. I think using banks to get the money out on the street was the right way to go.

“I love what Greenport did with the sidewalks,” he added. “We contributed to that effort. Everyone came together for this. I am so impressed with how those changes happened so quickly. People figured how to make it work. It gives me a lot of optimism.”

The merger, he said, will give the bank a far larger footprint “but out there nothing will change. The branches will remain open. The lenders will remain in place. I am excited for this kind of opportunity to grow community banking.”

As businesses emerge from the COVID-19 wreckage, Mr. O’Connor said he finds the efforts of so many owners amazing: “Entrepreneurs are amazing people. They dig in and survive. They know how to build something and sell something. I am so impressed with what they do every day. They are making it work.”

How does he see the coming weeks and months?

“Our economy is still not anywhere close to where it was,” he said. “We have to be honest with each other to get this right. There are people who can go back to work and people who can’t. We have to have honest conversations about this. We have employees who have conditions and they need to stay home. We will respect that. We have to help each other out.

“By nature, I am an optimistic person,” he added. “People know the cautions they should take. As long as we can get these numbers down, and keep them there, then people can stay employed and pay their rent. Then we should be better. We also need real clarity out of Washington, and we hope cooler heads will prevail.”