Chelsea Groton loan officer helped nearly 100 businesses get PPP loans
When the Small Business Administration released data on Paycheck Protection Program recipients in early July, it became apparent that Chelsea Groton Bank was the most prolific lender of funds to businesses in southeastern Connecticut as it had distributed 556 loans totaling $74 million.
Bank employees worked late hours trying to get as many applications processed as possible over a short period. One of the people working behind the scenes to keep businesses afloat was commercial loan officer Rich Balestracci, who said he helped nearly 100 businesses.
The Paycheck Protection Program is a forgivable loan program enacted as part of the CARES Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law March 27. The original $349 billion was allocated between April 3 and 16, so the government then added another $320 billion of funding.
"I was sort of on the frontline of that, working directly with a lot of borrowers, and what was difficult was to hear a lot of the struggles they were having and a lot of the challenges they were facing," said Balestracci, 35. He said that drove home the importance of getting the PPP funds underwritten, approved and disbursed.
A lot of Balestracci's role, he said, was understanding the challenges businesses faced, collecting their application packages, and relaying that to the credit team to do the underwriting. That meant working with credit department manager Kate Alves, who has a team of five other members.
Alves said of Balestracci, "He is very much a customer guy. He likes to be in front of the customer, he spends a lot of time with them, he really truly listens to their needs and makes sure he understands their business and the ins and outs of every customer and the industry they're in."
She said his attention to detail made the application package better, which made the underwriting easier. Alves said Chelsea Groton handled more than 550 in four months, whereas it usually does about 200 in a year.
With the PPP loans, she said there were times where Chelsea Groton received an application, underwrote it and approved it all in the same day.
Once the bank approved the application, Balestracci had a secondary role putting loans into the SBA system for approval. He said his work during this time "was pretty much seven days a week" as he and others worked with borrowers during the day and then did the SBA input work at night, when the system wasn't as overloaded.
"It was, I'd say, the greatest feat of teamwork that I've seen really in my career, because we had people all across the bank chipping in to make that whole process as efficient as we could," Balestracci said.
Balestracci also helped Yash Naik, an eighth-grader at Pine Point School, with the teenager's project to help centralize information for small businesses. And Chelsea Groton recently implemented its own small business relief loan program.
Outside of his work at Chelsea Groton, Balestracci serves as treasurer of the Stonington Community Center and a member of the Stonington Economic Development Commission.
A Stonington native, Balestracci returned after getting his bachelor's degree in economics at the University of Connecticut, and he also has an MBA from the University of New Haven. He lives in Pawcatuck with his wife and two kids, ages 6 and 8.
'We weren't sure whether we would survive'
Sea Well Seafood got a PPP loan from Chelsea Groton, and co-owner Alene Whipple said she is so thankful they were her bank.
"I could not imagine having had to deal with some of the things that some of my friends who own businesses told me about," she said. Chelsea Groton was "very responsive, and informative, and they were great."
She heard from friends that their loan officers weren't getting back to them in a timely fashion but said Balestracci was "super responsive," and even if he didn't have a definitive answer to a question, he would explain where they were and when they expected to have an answer.
Sea Well employs about 48 people, and Whipple said she used the entire PPP loan for payroll, enabling her to retain her employees.
"In all honesty, I don't think that my business would've made it through the beginning of COVID without it," she said, considering Sea Well had no wholesale income and had people who owed them money.
Similarly, New England Science and Sailing founder and president Spike Lobdell said "at that time, we weren't quite sure whether we would survive." But the $360,000 loan the Stonington organization received allowed him to retain staff, who pivoted to create online courses, such as teaching geometry about sailboats.
Lobdell said Balestracci "was really instrumental in guiding us through the PPP process. He was always available for questions."
Annie Philbrick, owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic and Savoy Bookshop and Café in Westerly, said Balestracci was helpful, available and honest about what he did and didn't know. Speaking to their working relationship before the pandemic, Philbrick noted that he introduced her to the SBA director for the state in 2018, a helpful connection.
The two stores collectively got a $125,000 loan, and Philbrick said all of it has been forgiven except for the $10,000 Economic Injury Disaster Loan advance.
"It was huge, because we closed in mid-March (and) immediately we laid off 30-plus employees from both stores, and we were sort of down to a bare bones crew," she said. Philbrick added, "I think if we didn't get the PPP, we would've had to take some pretty deep breaths about who we could bring back and when."