When Steve Hooper, president of Ethan Stowell Restaurant Group, and Ethan Stowell sought out the best bank for commercial lending, they spoke with a number of both national and local banks.

“For us, the key was finding someone that believed in the vision of what we were trying to build,” says Hooper. After conversations with various banks, they settled on 1st Security Bank, based in Mountlake Terrace.

Hooper says that what set 1st Security Bank apart was that the conversations extended far beyond just the numbers. “They went to the next level in understanding what we were trying to accomplish and to learn the story behind the numbers,” he recalls.

In addition to looking at the revenue and balance sheet, the bank was also interested in ESR’s engagement with the community, and the fact that they’re involved with nonprofit organizations that are a crucial part of the growing community.

As a community bank, 1st Security is active in the same communities as the nonprofits and small businesses we work with, says Brian Kunkel, the bank’s senior vice president and director of commercial lending.

“We really try to take a thoughtful approach from a commercial lending perspective,” says Kunkel. When loans are used appropriately, he says, it allows business owners to receive the necessary capital to invest in their business, which in turn helps the community prosper as a whole.

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“Investing into the communities that we serve helps small businesses grow, which leads to strong employment and, in turn, leads to a strong community,” says Kunkel.

Stowell says that he was drawn to 1st Security Bank because unlike conversations with big national banks, the interview process went both ways.

“Yes, we were interviewing for this, but they also wanted us to interview them to make sure we’re the correct people to work together,” he says. The back-and-forth conversation allowed the business and the bankers to really get to know each other and make sure they were the right match with the same priorities.

Conversations between ESR and 1st Security Bank began in the fall of 2019, and they closed on the loan in January 2020. Hooper and Stowell put together a celebratory dinner with members of the bank so they could get to know each other even better. “We’re in the hospitality industry so it’s something we do naturally, but it speaks to Ethan’s point that the relationship is a two-way street and we see each other as peers,” Hooper says.

Shortly after the partnership was solidified, the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country and the world — and the hospitality industry was one of the hardest hit. Despite the extreme difficulties faced by restaurants, the pandemic illustrated why a partnership with a local bank is beneficial to small businesses like the restaurants within ESR.

Kunkel says that due to their strong, trusting relationships, businesses are able to save one of their most valuable commodities: time. His approach with his clients is, “I’ll focus on the banking aspect and you focus on what you do best.”

In times of crises like the coronavirus pandemic, businesses such as ESR can rest assured that their bank will be there, the bank understands what the business is going through, and they’re able to react quickly to the crisis, Kunkel says.

“Even though ESR had only recently started as a client of mine, I was able to react quickly to what their needs are,” he says.

The bank was able to modify loans to help provide their clients with time to work through their own challenges. Kunkel recalls working around the clock to ensure that his clients received their Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans as quickly as possible.

“We knew how important it was to get these funds into our clients’ hands because the community and the people in the community needed it,” he says.

Stowell says things likely would have played out differently if they were working with a national bank. “With the PPP loans coming out, [1st Security Bank] reached out to us,” he says. They assured ESR that they were monitoring the situation closely and would make sure it was handled so ESR would be in line to receive the loan.

“They requested the info they needed from us,” Stowell recalls, “but they were the ones reaching out first.”

The bank’s concern wasn’t about that month’s bottom line — it was about the welfare of the business and its employees. Hooper says he received a phone call from the CEO of 1st Security Bank at the very beginning of the pandemic. “It wasn’t, ‘Hey, are you going to make your numbers this month?’ ” he says. Instead, the CEO asked Hooper what the bank could do to make sure ESR successfully survived the pandemic.

“That kind of relationship is really unique and not something I’ve historically experienced with other banking groups,” Hooper says.

At 1st Security Bank of Washington, we take a personal approach. We live in the communities we serve, so our branches are tailored to their communities. We believe that relationships make the difference, and that sets 1st Security Bank apart.