Q&A: Kevin O’Connor Says Successful Businesses Have Adapted To Life During A Pandemic

Kevin O’Connor, president and CEO of Bridge Bancorp and BNB Bank. JJIM LENNON

Kevin O’Connor, president and CEO of Bridge Bancorp and BNB Bank, is slated to appear Thursday in a virtual event sponsored by Adelphi University.

The virtual lecture, which will also feature Humera Qazi, a managing director of Morgan Stanley, is titled “Great Minds, Great Conversations: Disruption, Survival and Growth — How Our Economy Is Adapting to the Times.”

Mr. O’Connor, a 1984 Adelphi graduate, joined Bridge Bancorp and BNB Bank in 2008, after serving as executive vice president and treasurer of North Fork Bank. He was recently named one of Long Island’s Top CEOs by Long Island Business News, and he’s in the midst of putting together a merger between BNB Bank and Dime Bank.

He spoke last week, via Zoom, about the upcoming conversation.

Q: So, the title of your talk is “Disruption, Survival and Growth.” And that’s an interesting topic anytime — but it’s basically the mantra for 2020, I think.
We should be making T-shirts that say that, right?

Q: The subtitle is “How Our Economy Is Adapting to the Times.” So, in what ways is our economy adapting to the times?
Well, I guess we’ve all gotten used to doing this — the communications through Zoom — having our employees work from home. We are, obviously, with retail sales, much more online than we used to be. In our industry, there’s a lot less branch traffic than there once was.
I worry a little bit as we get to the winter. The restaurants have survived with outdoor dining. That’s not going to work today.
I think we have talked before about some of the partnerships that exist between government and Main Street, if you will. I think Greenport is one of the best examples of everybody pulling together and reinventing what they do.
I think we’ve created some interesting new dynamics that people worry about. They do worry. I was on a call the other day with the HIA, the Hauppauge Industrial Association, and they have a board meeting. The beginning of the board meeting was all people like myself talking about doing this, and the pitfalls of that, and we’re all struggling trying to make sure our cultures remain in place.
I think we’re all watching our children who may have started getting jobs in companies, how all of a sudden you join a firm and you actually don’t join. There were a number of people on the call who had recent college graduates that started at different companies, and they literally went in for some orientation and then went back home.

Q: It’s putting a lot of stress on the technology, isn’t it? The individual companies, but also just on the infrastructure, the technology infrastructure.
I think all of us love to bash … Altice and Verizon. I know that I was probably skeptical that they had the bandwidth to do what they’re doing — but they do.
I do feel bad for children. I think the education system is where this is going to [present] long-term issues.

Q: The pandemic caught a lot of businesses off-guard. We’ve been talking about the possibility of something like this happening for years, but it’s pretty difficult to plan for a cataclysmic event. What in your mind is setting apart businesses that are failing from businesses that are growing in this climate?
Well, for businesses, it probably had a little bit [to do with] the capital or the resources, making investments that you need to do. If you’re going to send your employees home, you had to go about buying and making sure they had laptops. That you had this kind of technology, that you have the resources, even if you’re even a smaller company. That you have somebody to help you with technology when it doesn’t work.
I think it’s the people who could think out of the box, and also probably believe that this was not going to be a two-week-and-we’ll-be-cured event.
There are some business models [that are going to be a] challenge for them to really function: movie theaters, gyms — I don’t know how they get back to business. Hotels, that’s a challenge, too.
… I think the successful businesses have adapted. They’ve created a website that’s [improved] their ability to sell online. They created better online catalogs. I mean, the ones that have survived, I guess, will be better for it.
It’s hard to find the silver lining in this. It really is. It’s exacerbated the … income inequalities. Unfortunately, the ones who work in hotels and restaurants, they are the ones who are not working at this point in time. And people have had Main Street businesses that have been replaced by somebody now continuing to buy on Amazon.

Q: How bad is it out there on the South Fork?
I think in the Hamptons right now, it is very good. Fortunately, all the people who escaped from Manhattan have now decamped out there, and they’re out there for the duration. I was in Bobby Van’s on Monday night or Tuesday night, and it was crowded. As I understand, they’ve been crowded … People were still eating outside, so they may have an issue, again, how they deal with it when it gets cold, but they put lots of heaters up.
And as I understand, a lot of the contractors and the landscapers are doing very well, because everybody’s buying a house and they want to do the things … There’s a nesting feeling, I think, people are having here. They’re renovating their houses. You can’t buy a piece of lumber or a piece of plywood, or siding, or windows or doors. I think all of those are in short supply because of the production limitations, and also the demand.

Q: So in this region, we’re probably more suited to handle the pandemic than in a lot of places.
I think we have a place that people escape to. I think they’ll say that in Connecticut. They’ll say that in some of the suburbs of Jersey. As we go across our footprint of businesses, certainly the East End is doing very well.
Where I sit every day … I don’t want to say it’s normal, but there’s a certain normalcy to what we do. People are going out to restaurants. They’re shopping at some point in time. They can come into offices like mine, because it’s only four stories tall.
… So I think we’re benefiting by the suburban, I guess, sense of safety that doesn’t exist in the boroughs.

Q: How long do you think that can last? If this pandemic goes on for another six months to a year, can we continue to be okay through it, or is there a time limit on that?
There is a challenge. New York City is a big engine of economic activity. It pays for lots of things in our state. To think that that’s going to be shut down through nine months from now can be very scary.

Q: BNB played a key role in providing funds to local businesses via the Paycheck Protection Program. Is it your expectation that another round of help is coming via PPP? And what about stimulus money for consumers? Is there a consensus in your industry about what to expect moving forward?

I think there’s confusion. I don’t know if there’s a consensus. I think that smarter and more rational heads will prevail, post-election, and they’ll recognize, especially if we do have this second wave, that things need to be done. You’ve got state and local governments that are hurting.
… So you would hope that there’s some compromise that’s reached that will both benefit the small-business community, whether it’s enhanced PPP or some other programs. I think the PPP was a good program. It got money in people’s hands relatively quickly, and it comes with aid to the state and local government. I’m optimistic that it’s the right thing to be done.

Q: The PPP — how big of a role did it play in helping this region get through?
I think it played a tremendous role. I mean, our little bank put a billion dollars out on the street to local businesses that have used it. It even provided the cash to get through and actually make the payrolls. It’s provided them, in some cases, an insurance policy that they’ve been able to use and leverage and invest some of the things we talked about earlier.
We were one of a number of banks that did it, so a lot of money got flushed into the system that in many cases was spent right here.

Q: Your conversation at Adelphi seems to acknowledge that beyond the pandemic there are a lot of other areas of uncertainty in America today that affect the business economy. There’s politics, social justice issues, evolving technology. What is having the biggest impact among those, and how should businesses negotiate the changing times? What kind of advice can you give them?
I think the first thing is to be aware of what’s going on. I think sometimes businesspeople can be myopic in their views … while they manage their own businesses, they don’t look at it in the context of the greater society.
I think you can’t ignore technology. That has obviously been the differentiators we have got through this.
I think it’s to be aware of your surroundings. I think it’s enhanced communications. When we started this seven or eight months ago, we had a weekly call with all of our employees. We’ve since gone to biweekly with all of them, but on those off weeks we do it in small groups. The ability to use this technology to have a direct conversation with all of your employees, so that everybody understands what’s going on, is incredibly important.

Q: If we didn’t have this technology, I don’t know how we’d be getting through this.
And it’s almost become … we have a camera, so we are having a conversation. … That’s important to me — we’re having this conversation. Some of the biggest complaints we’re getting today from our employees — as we go through this merger, we’re having a lot of these conversations — is that when you get on a call with 10 people, three of you have your camera on, and seven don’t. That’s become the newest challenge. You want to have that conversation — you want to put a face in it.
I talked to some of my colleagues [who] have established rules of engagement if you’re going to work from home. You have to get up, you have to get dressed. You have to be sitting at someplace, not in your bed. And you have to have your camera on. That’s how we’re going to interact this way — we should use all the technology all the time.
… I just spoke today to a gentleman … obviously, with this merger, we’re going to have a presence in Brooklyn. And so the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce reached out to me, and I called the gentleman back — and we have a Zoom call with the president of the Chamber of Commerce tomorrow at noon. That would have taken two weeks of trying to organize somebody’s calendar! Then, when am I going to drive into Brooklyn?
So you can use it, you can get a little lazy about it, but at some point this is an effective way to begin a conversation.
At some point, you want to shake somebody’s hand. I think I’ve shared before, one of my favorite things is touring people’s businesses, because you get to meet not just the CEO and president, and the guy who owns the business; you get to watch the interaction he has with his employees, which is important to me, because I want to do banking with somebody who has a good relationship with their employees. You get to see how they manage their facility, and if it’s very neat and organized, that gives me a greater sense of comfort than if I see something that’s all messy. We’re trying to do some of that, but it’s a nice way to kick this off.

Q: Speaking of the merger, it’s the latest in a long procession of steps toward growth for what was once a very small financial institution. What can you tell local residents who had accounts since it was Bridgehampton National Bank, since the beginning, to reassure them that this is good news for the community?
You know, in putting this together, deliberately, we found a partner who didn’t really tremendously overlap … so all the same people that East End residents have been dealing with will be in their same jobs going forward.
It gives us greater size and scale to continue to expand and invest in the things we need to. It allows us to take our brand of banking and do it farther across the island, into the boroughs, because the boroughs have neighborhoods just like we have. They have great little branch locations that our business model and our people and our culture are allowed to explore. I look forward to it.
For us, while the name’s going to change, your bankers will still be on the ground. That’s what’s most important.
While I love the Bridgehampton name, the BNB name, and what it means for the last 100 years, what really should matter for the customers are the people they see every day. When they go into a branch, or if a businessperson needs a loan — and all those people are going to be the same.
I’ll just say this: I think their motivation will be to step up and prove that nothing’s changed. … Because there’ll be too many people shooting at us, saying, “It’s going to change.” We’re going to work harder to prove that everything that we have stood for, for the last 110 years, we still stand for.

Q: What’s your general outlook? Once we get a vaccine, and the pandemic is brought under control, do you think we’re poised for significant growth as part of the recovery? I’m talking both in America and around the world. Or is the damage that’s being done going to have a lingering effect?
I think, the vaccine, there’ll still be a level of fear [after] it comes out. … Once there is, you get at least enough of the population that feels comfortable, they’re going to want to do something. They’re going to want to travel.
They’re also going to want to explore what they think are opportunities — because they may have come out of this stronger than some of their competitors. Unfortunately, that might be some consolidation along the way, but industries that are evolved, companies that have come through this stronger, are going to want to expand what they can.
Again, as the banker, I always have to be optimistic, because I lend people money. I think, out of this, when we get to some stage where a majority or a good percentage of the population feels comfortable, they will go out and spend money and do the things that they have missed.