Frank Sorrentino says ConnectOne Bank hears it all the time. Clients are searching for ways to right their businesses — to get them back to where they were, before the COVID-19 pandemic. He says that’s a big mistake.
“People talk about how they are going to compete in 2021,” he said. “I don’t look at the world that way. From my perspective, it’s 2030. We’re just nine years early.”
Sorrentino, the longtime chairman and CEO of ConnectOne, said this transition has been a long time coming. “The pandemic didn’t cause it — the pandemic accelerated it,” he said.
“This pandemic has really created an opportunity for us to see into the future,” he said. “A lot of things that were happening prior to the pandemic got sped up in a very big way. And we’ve seen tremendous changes that have occurred in our economy.
“As we sort of reawaken here and get back to what we think is normal, I would caution anyone to think we’re going back to where we were a year ago. That place doesn’t exist.”
Sorrentino said there are examples everywhere you look.
Take the restaurant industry, he said. Could you imagine looking at the menu on your phone? Could you imagine having just about any meal from any restaurant able to be delivered to your house?
“We’ve sped up or accelerated the clock on a lot of innovation, a lot of thought-processes, a lot of how we’re going to do business going forward,” he said. “Almost every company has had to reimagine what their business is going to look like to compete in the new world.”
Sorrentino said ConnectOne always has viewed itself as a trusted adviser.
“We bring a perspective of having worked with thousands of businesses,” he said. “So, when people come to talk to us, we have some historical information about what works and what doesn’t work — and how things should work.”
Are you spending too much on landscaping, rent, property taxes, legal services — or anything else? That’s just the start of the conversation.
“Businesses that have been challenged have been forced to think about the world in a very different way,” he said. “When they come to us for help, they basically have to open up the books and say, ‘Here’s where our issues are, here’s where we were and here’s where we think we’re going to go.’
“And, if that doesn’t comport to what we think is reasonable, rational and doable, then we’re going to have some tough conversations.”
Adapt or die, essentially.
“We’ve had people who tell us, ‘We’re just going to go back to the way it was,’” he said. “We have to say, ‘No, you’re not — or we’re not going to support that, because that’s not going to work.’
“If you’re not investing in technology, if you’re not investing in the future ways in which we’re going to do business, then you’re not a really great candidate to be a client of ours.”
Sorrentino is not a downer. He’s a realist. In fact, he thinks it’s a great time to be in business in New Jersey. If you’re willing to adjust.
“I think the trends are good for New Jersey,” he said. “We have this opportunity where people have moved out of New York, have found the suburbs.
“I am optimistic that a lot of that will stick. I think there are people who are looking for a better quality of life and have been able to find it here. I think there are opportunities here because companies are looking to open offices here.”
Sorrentino’s optimism is tempered, however.
“I’m a little concerned about the direction of some of the policies, specifically economic impact policies,” he said.
And he’s worried about how long this will last.
“I always tell people, ‘Never count out New York City,’” he said. “New York City is just an enormous magnet. And, while it’s suffering today, and it is sort of the epicenter of where the pandemic really got going for our area, there’s an electricity and an excitement about New York that’s going to continue to create a gravitational force.”
Of course, New Jersey can still benefit from the return of NYC, he said. Those workers may still want their suburban homes.
“I think this is a situation for New Jersey to win,” he said.
The biggest winner post-pandemic?
Sorrentino thinks it could be the workforce.
“For years, we’ve been running surveys and talking to folks about what would make their lives better,” he said. “And the thing that keeps coming up is a more flexible work environment. Well, here we are, a flexible work environment is here to stay.
“Now, I don’t believe that we’re all going to sit on the couch all day. I don’t think that’s reality. I think there’s something really missing from that equation.
“And I don’t see why, in the future, we have to have a 40-hour, five-day workweek, which forces people to miss their kid’s softball games or miss a dentist appointment — a work week that becomes an inconvenience around other parts of our lives.”
“I think we’re going to have a much healthier work-life balance.”
That will boost the economy. Especially if people return to the office — at least part of the time.
“We’re all small economic generators,” he said. “When we actually go to our places of business, we drive our cars, wear out our shoes, need to go to the dry cleaner and buy a sandwich. We do lots of things that have spillover effects in the economy. And a lot of those things don’t happen when you’re sitting at home.”
Once it starts happening again … look out, Sorrentino said.
“I think people have been pent up for a very long time. We’re going to see levels of spending that we haven’t seen since right after World War II — it’s probably going to be more dramatic than even most people think.
“I think this is going to be a very exciting time to go through over the next 12-18 months.”