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Financial Help for Local Businesses

Podcast published: September 25, 2020

As COVID-19 continues to have a significant effect on the local economy in Chester County, Pennsylvania, businesses and organizations are still in need of options to address revenue shortfalls and cashflow challenges. We turned to Rebecca Worthington from Benchmark Federal Credit Union to chat about the local economy and how that financial institution is supporting folks in Chester County.



What is the difference between a credit union and a bank?

  • A credit union is a not-for-profit financial cooperative.
  • Members pay a $5 member fee, but then become an owner of the credit union.
  • Members share in the credit union’s profits with higher interest and better loan rates.
  • Most credit unions offer the same services as big banks.

What is the credit union seeing in the economy in Chester County?

  • Many businesses were hurt in the late spring and early summer when lockdown orders were in place.
  • Those small business owners were worried that they would not survive the lockdown period – but many have since reopened.
  • Some local businesses laid off staff, but have since brought some of their people back to work.
  • Many local business owners and leaders are hopeful for a return to full business in the next few months.
  • At Benchmark FCU, there is an emphasis on encouraging folks to shop locally to support the local economy.
  • Lots of businesses across the county have been forced to pivot to engage and serve customers in new ways.
  • Restaurants and hair salons were very adversely affected by COVID-19.

How is Benchmark offering support during COVID-19?

  • As the only credit union to exclusively serve Chester County, Benchmark gives all of its sponsorship funds to Chester County businesses and residents.
  • Benchmark continued to provide event sponsorship and support for local community programs and events during COVID-19 – “If we had it available to give back, we gave it.”

What is the Benchmark Cares Loan Program?

  • Benchmark FCU set aside $1 million for the loan program.
  • Chester County businesses can apply for a loan of up to $50,000 – that is interest-free, due of 10 years, and with the first payment not due until January 2021.
  • The loan program gained momentum in late June and July, once businesses were allowed to reopen.
  • As of the posting of this show, there is still just under $300,000 available in the loan program.

How can local chambers of commerce deliver value to businesses?

  • A local Chamber of Commerce provides businesses with important news, connection to local government, information, and networks for supporting and growing their business.
  • The local Chamber provides a strong connection to the local business community.
  • Benchmark supported the Greater West Chester Chamber of Commerce by covering the membership fees for 2020 for existing members, so that those local businesses could continue to leverage the power of the chamber.

How can credit unions meet the banking needs of local businesses?

  • Credit unions often deliver exactly the same business services as bigger banks – but often at less costly rates or with lower fees.
  • Credit unions are often hyper-focused on their local area, which can translate to a closer working relationship with business owners and leaders.

Intro: Hey, everybody. And welcome to another episode of Start Local, the podcast focused on helping businesses in Chester County, PA and the greater Philly area as they try to navigate through the Covid-19 economy. 

Joe Casabona: Before I bring in our guests, I do want to tell you a little bit about our newsletter. It’s Start Local Monthly. It is very free, and it comes to you once a month telling you all the great things happening around Chester County, as well as everything we’ve learned on this show from our fantastic guests. You can sign up for free over at [startlocal.co/news]. Again, that is totally FREE and totally monthly over at [startlocal.co/news].

Okay. First, I want to bring in my fellow co-host, Liam Dempsey. Liam, how are you today? 

Liam Dempsey: Fantastic as always, Joe. How you doing? 

Joe Casabona: I am wonderful. Thank you. And joining us today is Rebecca Worthington. She is the Vice President of Marketing at Benchmark Federal Credit Union, the only federal credit union to exclusively serve Chester County. Rebecca, how are you?

Rebecca Worthington: I’m great. Thank you for having me. 

Joe Casabona: Thanks so much for being on the show. Now we’re gonna talk all about small businesses and supporting Chester County. But first, why don’t you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Rebecca Worthington: So, I work for Benchmark Federal Credit Union, and there’s a difference between a federal credit union and a big box bank. And the difference between a credit union is that we are a not-for-profit financial cooperative that was formed to help other individuals within the communities. So, basically what that means is when you become a member of a credit union, you usually pay a $5 fee to show your share of membership, and then all the other products and services are available to you. 

However, what that means is you’re not just a member of the credit union, you’re also an owner of the credit union because your share of membership shows that you are an owner within our credit union. You elect a board of a fellow members that would actually help look over the actual financial wellbeing of the credit union. And any profits that the credit union makes, we give back to our members in the form of lower loan rates and higher dividend rates. So basically, it’s nice to be a member of a credit union because you’re not just a member, you’re a part of a family because you’re also the owner of that credit union.

Whereas at a bank, they have shareholders and the shareholders put up the money to form the bank. And so any profits that the bank makes actually goes back to the shareholders first. So, it’s a little bit more of a close knit community within a credit union. 

Now, that being said, just to let you know, credit unions do have all the same products and services that your big banks have. So, don’t think that just because we’re smaller in community and close knit, that we don’t have all the same products and services available ’cause the majority of us do. 

Joe Casabona: Yeah. That’s really great. I did not know that even though I, thanks to, you know, credit unions and their memberships and distributing profits like that. I was able to get a killer mortgage. We were able to buy our house a lot sooner than we thought. Thanks to a credit union. So, that’s really great. And thank you for telling us the difference.  And what do you do over at Benchmark Federal Credit Union?

Rebecca Worthington: So, over at Benchmark, I am actually the Vice President of marketing. So, I oversee all of the marketing initiatives, the new development marketing of products and services as well as do most of the community networking and any type of sponsorships for community events or nonprofits. And, I have actually been with Benchmark this, I am starting my 21st year as the Head of the Marketing department at Benchmark. 

Liam Dempsey: That’s fantastic. Thank you for the overview on your role and more specifically about the difference between banks and credit unions. I know a lot of our listeners will find a lot of value in that. 

We heard earlier that Benchmark serves exclusively the Chester County area or Chester County, Pennsylvania, which means that you’re in a lot of different business communities and you’re seeing a lot of what’s happening in the Chester County economy. I feel like you could probably talk for hours about the state of the Chester County economy and Covid-19. But could you give us a really brief overview of what you’re seeing, particularly with smaller business? How are they doing? What are they faring? Where, how are they faring? What are their challenges? What are they doing? 

Rebecca Worthington: So, a lot of the small businesses were actually, they were hurt back in the spring and early summer when the county was on lockdown. They could not make any revenue because they had to be closed down. So a lot of ’em were actually at that time worried about whether or not they were ever going to even be able to come back and open up their businesses. Luckily, a lot of the small businesses owners that I have had some contact with, they have been over able to open back up. Some of it’s at limited capacity due to some of the regulations or guidelines, but the majority of ’em have been able to open back up, which is very helpful for them. 

However, some of them did have to, you know, lay-off some employees or furlough some employees. So, not everybody has been able to be brought back. However, they’re all very hopeful that, you know, in the next, you know, several months pay, probably about six months that they can get back up on their feet at full capacity with their full staff and get going again.

But a lot of them do need assistance. So the one thing we are really pushing, being a local credit union is the shop local, the bank local, the buy local. We are just really trying to push that. If you could do that right now, that would be great because it really helps out the small business owners within our community.

Liam Dempsey: Yeah. The local is an angle that we hear a lot of. And we’ve heard a lot in our previous episodes about folks who are trying to figure out how to pivot to do something online so that they can sell their products and sell their services to local folks in an online way. Is there one sector, and I, we didn’t talk about this in advance, so this is a little bit of a spring on you, but hopefully it’s a soft spring. Is there one sector in the Chester County area that has fared this much better than you and your bank or your credit union colleagues? I was gonna say banking, but do credit unions, do they consider themselves in the banking industry? Just for my own clarification. 

Rebecca Worthington: So we use the word banking as a verb. 

Liam Dempsey: There we go. 

Rebecca Worthington: But we don’t, yeah. But we don’t like to…

Liam Dempsey: I know you’re not a banker, you’re a different institution. But you provide banking services. 

Rebecca Worthington: Yes. So we use banking as a verb, but we try not to necessarily say that we’re a banking institution. We try to say financial institution or credit union.

Liam Dempsey: Thank you. Thank you for clarifying. So the question was, has, have you seen a sector in Chester County that has particularly well or pivoted particularly well in light of Covid-19? Maybe in ways that you and your colleagues didn’t expect. 

Rebecca Worthington: You know, I can’t say that we necessarily have, I mean, I think it was kind of across the board that all sectors were hip pro pretty hard. I think probably the ones that were hit the least were  those that, as we all know are considered essential workers such as, you know, the nurses, the doctors, the medical field, but other than that, you know, a lot of the banks and the credit unions, we continued to keep operating. We just had to switch our platform of how we could operate and how we could reach our members. So, that was just like a little bit of a learning curve. 

But I wouldn’t per se that there’s been any industry that’s kind of fared better than other industries. I think if you were to ask the question the other way and say, has one industry fared a little bit, we’ve seen fair, a little bit worse. That would probably have to be industries such as your restaurants and your hair salons. I mean, there was just nothing that they could do there for a while. And even the restaurants being back at 25% or 50% capacity, that’s still very, you know, hurtful to them ’cause this, the summertime is when everybody’s out and wanting to eat outside on patios and inside and just the restaurants are packed. And right now have not been able to get back to that.

Liam Dempsey: Yeah. That’s for sure. We had chatted in the run up to this call, Rebecca, about the, what the Benchmark has been doing to support local businesses and organizations in light of Covid-19 and in light of what you’re seeing in the local economy. And you talked about a couple of different programs of community involvement and offerings from the credit union. Can you share those with us a little bit? 

Rebecca Worthington: Sure. So Benchmark prides ourselves on being very, since we are exclusive to Chester County, we can give back all of our sponsorship and, you know, volunteer efforts to the Chester County businesses and residents. That being said, our Marketing funds a lot for sponsorship go to nonprofits and events that are held within Chester County. All of those events are those nonprofits that we typically on an annual basis would sponsor or, you know, volunteer at. We are continuing to do so, even though a lot of them had either had to be cancelled. We’ve then donated our funds to that organization. So, to help them out ’cause they’ve been hard hit or if the event has not been canceled but had to move to a virtual platform, we have still allotted our same sponsorship dollars to that event. And, even though it would not get us the exposure of being in front of the participants of that event, since it’s a virtual event now. So we just felt that it was very important that if we had it available to give back to the organizations and the nonprofits within our community that we usually participate with or partner with, that we should do so during these hard times. 

Liam Dempsey: Yeah. That’s  pretty impressive. Certainly, Joe and I are involved with a number of online communities, online events and conferences and sponsorship’s A huge, huge challenge because sponsors are saying what’s in, and rightfully. So, what’s in it for me? What do I get outta, what kind of exposure? Where am I? How am I gonna engage with the community? And in a lot of ways the answer is we don’t really know ’cause we’re figuring this out too. So that’s fantastic that the Benchmark is continuing that kind of support.

You also, again, in the run up to this, had talked about a pretty interesting loan program that you folks were rolling out and a loan program. The reason I’m bringing it up is because it’s still available for business owners in Chester County. Can you talk about that? 

Rebecca Worthington: Yes. So, back in the spring when the government was offering the PPP loans to everybody and there was that whole kind of obstacle with, you know, the site crashing and small businesses were kind of pushed to the second wave of the PPP or they just, their applications did not get submitted or accepted at all. So we saw that some small businesses were not, they didn’t have the relationship the business banking relationship that bigger businesses had, and they were the ones that were getting their applications in first and getting the  PPP funds.

So. we wanted to try to do something for the small businesses in the Chester County community. So we actually created the Benchmark Cares Loan and we set aside a million dollars for this. And small business owners in Chester County can apply for up to 50,000 dollars loan with us. And the nice thing is, the loan is for 10 years. It’s a 10 year term, but there’s no interest over the 10 years of the loan. And the first payment did not have to be, does not have to be paid back until January of 2021. So not only did it give them a 0% interest loan for 10 years to get kind of, you know, back up on their feet with their business, but it also gave them a little bit of a cushion that if they took it out in say, April, May, June, July, that they didn’t have to make it their first payment until January when they could kind of see where they would be at that time. And, we have seen quite a bit of interest in it. 

The bad part was that a lot of the small businesses did not feel comfortable coming and getting that loan back in the spring when we first rolled it out. So we didn’t see as much interest at that time as we had hoped. But I think it was because they were still in lockdown and they weren’t even sure what the future of their small business was. They didn’t even know if they were gonna be able to open their doors back up ever. So they hated to take on a loan. 

So, basically what we did see is an uptick in like end of June, July, August with the Benchmark Caress Loans because people were actually able to open their doors back up. They were actually, to see, able to see like, I’m able to get back on my feet a little bit. However, maybe they’re not making as much income as they’re used to with their business. So they need like a little cushion, or they want a cushion that they could fall back on if needed, if they fall on hard times again. So at that time, they felt comfortable because their doors were back open, that they’d come apply for the loon. 

So we do, like I said, have a million dollars set aside for this loan and we have seen an uptick in the last,  couple months since like July and August. But the good thing is we do still have about a little under $300,000 available for that. So if you are a small business in Chester County and you feel like you might want that cushion and you want to come apply, feel free to do so. You can go to our website or you can stop in any of our branches. They’re open from 10-3 each day

Joe Casabona: That’s fantastic, right? Because there was a lot of concern, you know, when this really started up in the spring that, you know, what’s gonna happen to employment and small businesses? And I know that early on in the lifespan of this show, which started basically right after the lockdown started, we spoke to some local legislatures, and, you know, government officials like Marianne Moskowitz, have you worked with local government officials to kind of get a big picture of what’s going on and what they’re doing to kind of assist small businesses? Because I know that there’s still a lot of uncertainty. You mentioned restaurants, you know, they’re not gonna have outdoor seating soon and stuff like that. So I know that you’re obviously very deeply embedded in Chester County, but I’m wondering if you are working with government officials to see what’s happening on like maybe a bigger scale, the statewide scale or something like that.

Rebecca Worthington: So, we’re not directly working with the local officials. But through our association with the greater Westchester Chamber, we do get that is one of the benefits that we have obviously do get as a chamber member, because they work very closely with all the local officials. And so we kind of let the chamber do that and then pass it on to us as a chamber member.

Why we don’t get directly involved with them is because oftentimes it’s hard. We know them all. We have a great relationship with them when we see them out and about in the community. But it’s hard because a credit union likes to try to stay away from the political side of things, and each local official does, you know, run on a certain ticket. And so just with the way the political environment is right now, we tend to try to stay away from that and learn what we need to through our relationship with the chamber. 

Liam Dempsey: Are you suggesting that it’s a politically contentious time? 

Rebecca Worthington: Hmm. Maybe. 

Liam Dempsey: Moving on. Moving on. 

Rebecca Worthington: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. 

Liam Dempsey: Couldn’t help myself. Sorry, Joe. 

Joe Casabona: Yeah, no problem. But that’s actually a great point. You mentioned being a Chamber of Commerce member, and I know that you’ve done a few things to help the Chester County, the greater Chester County Chamber of Commerce. Is that right? 

Rebecca Worthington: Yes. Mm-hmm.

Joe Casabona: So maybe you could talk a little bit about that and then maybe what are, for people like me who are not part of the Chamber of Commerce, you know, what are some of the benefits that we could see from something like that?

Rebecca Worthington: So, great. Yes. So we do have a relationship with the Greater Westchester Chamber of Commerce. Benchmark is actually the title sponsor of the Annual Benchmark Twilight Cycling Classic, the big bike race. That pro bike race that takes place usually in August, was gonna be September this year. But we’ve been the title sponsor for the past four years. And as the title sponsor, the Chamber puts that event on. So we actually have partnered with them, and this year, unfortunately, the event had to be postponed until 2021 due to the pandemic. So we had,  You know, a portion of our annual sponsorship funds already paid to the chamber and the event couldn’t go on to. So instead of asking for those funds back, we actually decided to work with the Chamber and say, are there some programs we could develop that could actually help out some of the residents or small businesses within Chester County during this time?

And so when we put our heads together, we kind of came up with the Benchmark Federal Credit Union Community Cares Program through the Chamber. And what that is, the existing chamber members that own their own business or are a nonprofit that may have fallen on hard times due to the pandemic. We actually have agreed to take our sponsorship funds and roll them over to pay those individuals,  or those organizations annual chamber membership dues for the next year. And the reason we did that is we value our relationship with the Chamber, the benefit that we get from it, the tools, the resources, the networking. And we felt that those small businesses during this time really needed that. Those benefits of, you know, knowing what’s going on, knowing what’s happening with the elected officials, knowing that gay Street was gonna close down, on you know, to traffic so that, you know, the restaurants could put umbrellas out for a couple of months. Those are the type things that they need to know about. And if they lose their chamber membership, they wouldn’t have access to that information. 

So we just felt it was very beneficial that they continue to have access to that as well as networks to talk and panel discussions to hear about how others, or you know, some ideas that they have about how to make it through this unpredescent times. 

So We just felt that, that was a great way to use some of our funds and a great community initiative to give back to them because the hard part is that a small business, they might really enjoy the benefits they get from chamber membership. However, when you’ve just been closed down and you’ve had no income for four or five months, when it comes time for your chamber membership dues fees, invoice to show up, that might be the first thing that you have to say. It might be 299, it might be 499. I don’t know how much it is, but it might be the first thing that you have to say, “I can’t pay this right now”. And then that means you really are losing out on that community feel. And right now we all need to know what’s going on within our community. 

Liam Dempsey: Yeah. Community involvement is the lifeblood of small business, isn’t it? it’s known the folks in your village and town and wider area and with lockdowns and social isolation, social isolation and distancing, that makes it hard. That sounds like it’s a great program.

I wanna kind of close us out here by talking about credit unions generally, and one of the things that Joe and I have learned in preparing for this show is that credit unions really do provide the full range of banking services and needs that small businesses might have. And at the risk of sounding like a sales pitch, ’cause I don’t mean this just about Benchmark, but rather federal, credit unions, federal credit unions more generally, what kind of services can they really offer to a small business that might be looking to make sure that it’s banking is looking out for its best needs and not necessarily the best needs of the institution with the money?

Rebecca Worthington: So, one of the things is like credit unions are across the board. We do typically have the same products and services available to our, not only our members, the residential members, but also to the small businesses and through our business lending programs or business account programs. 

And one of the nice things offered at Benchmark, not to sound too sales pitchy, but we can offer, since we can offer all the same technology and products and services as most of them, the nice thing is that we offer a business checking account relationship with you that is actually there’s no minimum balance that you have to keep in your business checking account. You do have to keep $5 in your business savings account to show your share of membership, but then you can also have up to 200 transactions through your business checking each month at no additional fee. So, a lot of times with the big banks, small businesses kinda get lost in the big banks, things bank business accounts because a lot of times it’s a 1500 or a $5,000 minimum that you have to keep in the account.

Often, it’s also a 25 cent per transaction fee through your business account each month. So if you’re trying to do all your transactions through there, all of a sudden that could be an additional couple hundred dollars to you. So we just wanted to make sure that we were given back to the community that we serve, and making sure that the residents as well as the local small businesses had kind of a champion that they could come to and handle their business banking, but not be kind of, I don’t wanna say taken advantage of, but not, they can’t offer the same things that a big corporation can offer to a big box bank. So they do kind of get lost in the shuffle times sometimes. So we wanted ’em to be able to come to us, which is a small local credit union, and know that we’re gonna look after them, we’re gonna try to do everything they can. We want to be their financial partner through all of life’s Benchmarks.

Liam Dempsey: Excellent. Thank you for that. 

RRebecca Worthington: Mm-hmm. 

Joe Casabona: Awesome. Well, as we wrap up here, I think the main takeaways for our listeners whether you’re in Chester County or not, are perhaps explore the benefits of your local Chamber of Commerce and perhaps a local credit union because there could be potential benefits for you and your small business or even you personally. So, definitely check those things out.

Rebecca, if people want to know more about you, where can they find you? 

Rebecca Worthington: So if you would like to know more about me,  you can find me over at Benchmark. I’ll give you my web, my email address. And anybody in the community feel free to give me a call on any topic. I will be more than happy to help you. Financial related, chamber related, I actually am on the board of Directors of the Greater Westchester Chamber, so I do have a lot of chamber knowledge as well. So, it’s [worthingtonr@benchmark@cu.net]. 

Joe Casabona: All right. 

Rebecca Worthington: Or if you would like to, you could also give me a call at (610) 429-1600, extension 227. And, I enjoy talking about the credit union, obviously, the credit union movement and how we can help the community. So if you have any questions, please feel free to give me, you know, to reach out to me.

Liam Dempsey: Rebecca, thank you so much for your time today. Absolute pleasure. Really appreciate your time, knowledge, and experience. 

Rebecca Worthington: Thank you so much for having me. I enjoyed it. 

Joe Casabona: Awesome. And you can find everything Rebecca mentioned and more over in the show notes over at [startlocal.co/news]. And again, if you wanna join that mailing list, it’s [startlocal.co/news].

Thanks so much for listening. And until next time. Stay safe out there.

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