World’s Best Banks 2021: US Regional

The US Best Regional Banks leapt to meet client and community needs through the year’s travails.

As the Covid-19 pandemic emerged, “the magnitude of the uncertainty” was unclear, says Jerry Sargent, Citizens Bank’s president and Massachusetts and Northeast Regional executive. Early on, nobody could predict how the pandemic would impact banking operations, credit and operating risks, nor how financial institutions were supposed to move forward when the world overall was spinning out of control.

Several steps were critical at Citizens, Sargent says, including initiating ongoing communication with employees and clients and quickly leveraging technology. Many bank employees worked long hours to help clients and non-clients access Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans so they could keep their businesses running. “The nobility of banking” came through, Sargent says.

Then, just as businesses and individuals were beginning to grasp the scope of the pandemic, the March 13 killing of Breonna Taylor in Knoxville, Tennessee, followed by the May 25  killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, brought much-needed attention to issues regarding systemic racism.

Once again, many banks stepped up and dedicated funds to often-overlooked communities, including minority-owned businesses. Minneapolis-headquartered US Bank vowed to rebuild locations that were damaged or destroyed during the several days of unrest that followed Floyd’s death. It also pledged to double partnerships with Black-owned suppliers within 12 months.

Even amid the upheaval of 2020, the challenges and decisions that businesses must navigate in any year continued: deciding how best to innovate, which technologies to invest in, which services to add and which markets to expand into. “Banking today is being reinvented to accommodate customers on their terms,” says Bob Weiss, regional executive for US Bank’s Community Central division.

The six banks that won Global Finance Best Bank Awards, representing nine regions, adeptly navigated these challenges.

Citizens Bank: New England

Within weeks of the pandemic’s emergence, Citizens Bank scaled its SBA department from approximately 20 employees to more than 1,000, while developing technology that allowed it to connect to the Small Business Administration electronically.

“We processed $5 billion in loans across 50,000 customers in just a few weeks,” Sargent says. Citizens Financial Group, headquartered in Providence, Rhode Island, and with $183 billion in assets, took top honors in New England.

Citizens committed $10 million to help drive social equity and advancement in underserved areas and $500 million in incremental financing and capital for small businesses, housing and other types of development in predominantly minority communities.

Interest in Citizens’ point-of-sale lending—a buy now, pay later offering that provides fixed monthly payments and a lower rate of interest than many alternatives—jumped during the pandemic, according to one report. Many clients view this option as more responsible than increasing their credit card balances.

PNC Bank: Mid-Atlantic

Early in the pandemic, PNC Bank built an online portal to streamline PPP applications for its customers, while more than 4,000 PNC employees worked to secure more than 74,000 small-business loans. And in mid-2020, PNC committed $1 billion to help address systemic racism and support the economic empowerment of low- and moderate-income communities. PNC Financial, with about $467 billion in assets, earned top honors for the Mid-Atlantic region.

In part by using the proceeds from the sale of its stake in global asset manager BlackRock, PNC funded its acquisition of the US operations of Spanish financial institution BBVA. Combined with its existing footprint, PNC now has a presence in 29 of the top 30 metropolitan markets in the US.

Regions: Southeast

With close to $133 billion in assets and operating approximately 1,400 banking locations across the Southeast, Midwest and Texas from its home base of Birmingham, Alabama, Regions Bank took the title for the best regional bank in the Southeast.

As a participant in the Paycheck Protection Program, the bank originated approximately $5 billion in PPP loans for its business clients in 2020 and forgave around $1 billion of those loans by the end of the year.

Regions Bank and Regions Foundation also made a $2.5 million initial commitment to help organizations that have helped small businesses navigate the pandemic, and committed $12 million to advance programs that promote racial equity, including $1 million to the National Urban League and $2 million to support minority-owned banks.

Union Bank: Far West

MUFG Union Bank, part of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, operates roughly 350 branches that have approximately $136 billion in assets. It earned the top honor for the Far West region.

Throughout 2020, the bank embarked on several initiatives related to social justice, including the March launch of “WE CAN,” the Women’s Entrepreneurship Capacity building, Advocacy support, and Nurturing growth initiative. This two-year, $500,000 commitment focuses on building capacity for Women’s Small Business Centers in California. 

In June, MUFG Union Bank committed $10 million to launch a Community Recovery Program to address social and racial injustice in the US. These funds are dedicated to small-business recovery efforts. Also in 2020, the bank began conducting due diligence on the impact and risks posed by climate change and reduced its exposure to coal-fired power generation.

Early in 2021, MUFG Union Bank launched Green Deposits, providing its clients an opportunity to invest in ESG (environmental, social and governance) projects such as energy efficiency, renewable-energy projects and sustainable food initiatives. 

US Bancorp: Great Lakes, Plains, Southwest

With approximately $530 billion in assets, US Bank swept the awards in three regions: Great Lakes, Plains and Southwest. When the pandemic hit, the bank pivoted to drive-through operations and digital technology, while helping about 100,000 PPP applicants secure $7.4 billion in loans, says Bob Weiss, regional executive for the bank’s Community Central division. The bank continues to process new loans.

During 2020, US Bank committed $60 million to employees and communities for Covid-19 relief and recovery efforts, including premium pay for frontline employees.

The bank’s investment in technology and digital tools continued, giving “business owners the power of time, choice and convenience,” Weiss says. This included simplified loan applications, accelerated decision-making for credit needs and a full suite of products for SBA lending and de-posit products, among others. The innovations offer “business owners the ability to DIY, but also have a team at US Bank reach to help them,” he adds. More than half of loan sales and three-quarters of transactions take place digitally, the bank reports. 

Zions Bancorp: Rocky Mountain

Since its founding nearly 150 years ago, Zions First National Bank grew to 122 financial centers across several Western states and amassed more than $65 billion in total assets.

The bank ranked ninth in the US for PPP approvals, with more than 46,000 loans approved, preserving payroll for more than 600,000 workers. Approximately 82% of the loans were for less than $150,000; 70% went to businesses with fewer than 10 employees, and about 21% were to businesses that previously didn’t bank with Zions. More than a quarter of the loans were to businesses in low- to moderate-income areas.

The bank later forgave $1.3 billion in PPP loans for close to 10,000 borrowers, which represented more than 95% of the loan balances.