By Brandon Walker EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – For 22-year Big Sky resident Ross Pfohl the promise of lingering economic adversity long after the pandemic has passed is reminiscent of the lasting effects of the 2008 recession which were felt until roughly 2013. Unknowns continue to circulate regarding the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but to this point Pfohl is optimistic based on the current state of Big Sky businesses.
American Bank Branch Manager Pfohl and his team dealt with stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns the way that most every business did: by closing their lobby and working remotely as well as virtually to the best of their abilities.
After witnessing the evolving economic and social climate, American Bank shut down their lobby for a second time three weeks ago after reopening to walk-in patrons for about a month and a half. They continue to operate their drive-thru lanes at the bank all while moving to a new location within the Big Sky Meadow Village two weeks ago.
Pfohl recently spoke with EBS over the phone to discuss the economic landscape of the Big Sky community as the pandemic progresses.
Explore Big Sky: Can you describe what it was like to transition from your daily routine of communicating with consumers in the lobby to suddenly having to work with them remotely?
Ross Pfohl: “We went to more phone meetings and people using the drive-thru. We still do meetings by appointment where we wear masks. But I would say most customers choose to do business by phone. Still some people like to meet in person and have eye to eye contact. Fortunately, we also have a very good electronic banking options that we offer our customers.”
EBS: Can you describe the financial impact that the pandemic has had on Americans?
R.P.: “The restaurant and bar businesses have been heavily affected and so has any business that requires you to be in a group or in a confined space such as tourist buses, that kind of thing. Otherwise it’s kind of interesting, building is busier than it’s ever been and from what I can tell the real estate [market] is busy up here. In my casual observation, it seems a lot of people want to move to Montana now and get out of the cities. We obviously have less foreigners visiting, but it seems like a lot of Americans have chosen to come west for their vacations.”
EBS: Have you ever witnessed an event or happening that has had a financial impact similar to that of the pandemic?
R.P.: “2009 to 2012 was pretty devastating up here. I would say it was probably worse than what we have experienced so far. People had invested in second homes, speculative properties and flipping properties. Then the recession hit and people lost a lot of liquidity. The building pretty much stopped, prices fell and people weren’t buying anything even with the lower prices. There wasn’t any VRBO around to rent your houses out to supplement your income, so a lot of people got hurt. I would say it was probably worse than this, for right now. I mean we’re still in the first phases of this, so we’ll see where this goes. For the bank the financial impact is very different when facing this health crisis versus the financial crisis of 10 years ago.”
EBS: Are you witnessing an increase in loan requests due to the pandemic?
R.P.: “We were busy before and we’re busy now. We did a number of PPP loans and I think we helped out a lot of people with those. It’s kind of interesting, you know no one knew what to expect when this shutdown came so a lot of people applied for PPP loans and some people needed it, and some people didn’t, and some people even gave it back. Things have kind of calmed down now and there’s obviously some businesses out there that are going to have some issues down the road unless things get straightened out, but so far most businesses seems to be hanging on and doing okay and some businesses seem to be doing just fine. We are just concerned how long this health crisis will last and the long-term impact.”
EBS: From your observations, how would you describe the economic mindset of local businesses currently?
R.P.: “I think everybody’s paying attention. I think everybody is on their toes. We’re all kind of waiting to see how this all plays out. Everybody’s trying to keep their powder dry and you know prepare for the next round. I mean this could go well or could go south again.”
EBS: As a manager, can you describe how it felt to close down the bank’s lobby for a second time?
R.P.: “It was kind of surreal. We have pandemic meetings on a regular basis. The goal of these meeting is how do we protect our staff and our customers. When cases were on the rise and some businesses in Big Sky got hit, I thought we should probably close again. We had [a] meeting and I didn’t get the reaction I thought I’d get from the staff. They were all like, ‘Let’s just keep it open for a little longer and see how it goes.’ Our staff is very customer oriented and they enjoy the customers. They enjoy the interaction and there’s a lot of fun that goes on back and forth between them and so we kept it open for a couple more weeks and then finally I was like ‘Okay people we’ve got to close the lobby.’ … When we did close, the timing could not have been worse. We were all set to show our new bank to the Big Sky community.”
EBS: If you could choose one aspect of life before the pandemic to restore, what would it be and why?
R.P.: “That’s easy, I love music. I love the Music in the Mountains series that we have here in Big Sky. I love the arts, you know going to the Warren Miller [Performing Arts] Center. I also like going to the movies and sporting events. I guess that’s more than one, but you get the general idea. I mean if there was only one it would probably be music, but those could all move around depending on how I’m feeling.”
EBS: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?
R.P.: “We have a motto here at American Bank that came from Bruce Erickson, who was the bank’s founder and longtime supporter of Big Sky, which was ‘Work hard, make money and have fun’ and that’s what we do.”