Upstate district director of U.S. Small Business Administration leads agency that serves as saving grace to those financially hobbled by global pandemic
By Lou Sorendo
Born on March 14, 1955, Bernard J. Paprocki shares the same birth date as theoretical physicist Albert Einstein.
While Einstein is known for his incredibly high IQ and contributions to the world of science, Paprocki is using his role as director of the Upstate district office of the U.S. Small Business Administration in Syracuse to help maintain the sustainability of beleaguered business people battered by COVID-19.
Paprocki is responsible for the delivery of SBA’s financial programs and business development services for a 34-county region in Upstate New York.
“Initially, we had no idea of the size and scope of the volume that was going to hit us,” Paprocki said while reflecting back on the onset of the pandemic.
“You hear the expression ‘drinking water from a fire house.’ It was bigger than that. It was like the Alaskan Pipeline,” he said.
A key factor was individuals’ personal concern for their own health, and in terms of logistics, it was key to move to a virtual environment as quickly as possible.
Implementation of the CARES Act has been described as “flying a plane and building it as you go, which was the case,” Paprocki said. “The program had to get out there quickly in order to be effective.”
Many different questions popped up regarding issues associated with the CARES Act — officially known as Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security — that had yet to be addressed at that time.
Continuous information was being supplied by the U.S. Treasury Department, the agency managing the program and setting its rules and regulations.
SBA’s duty was to implement it, and oftentimes it was “awkward and difficult” to properly understand what became a work in progress.
Paprocki, 65, said the process could have been better. “The hardest thing to do was be able to get the right information to businesses, many of which were desperate,” he noted.
He said his staff features several people who are at higher risk due to their age or parental status.
“You have to be very careful and considerate in terms of how you take care of them,” he said.
Paprocki noted he believes employees like working from home as much if not more than they did coming into the office.
Not only are there fewer distractions, but time saved can be spent attending to important matters other than work, said Paprocki, who commutes to Syracuse from his Baldwinsville residence.
“I have more hours available to me to balance all the things I’ve got to do, whether it’s getting yard work done or returning phone calls. Nothing is wasted time,” he added.
Paprocki said prior to the pandemic, he was not a big proponent of tele-working.
“I did not do that and hadn’t done that in my career,” he said.
However, “this has truly changed my opinion about tele-work,” said Paprocki, praising his team for how well it responded.
When conditions improve and people return to work, Paprocki said he would consider tele-work for employees if it helps their own situation and their work gets done.
For many years, Paprocki has been district director for the SBA’s Syracuse district office.
However, “Syracuse” has been rebranded out of the name.
Paprocki and his team recently rebranded the Syracuse office into the Upstate district office of the SBA.
“We cover 34 counties in Upstate New York,” he said. “We really didn’t feel like calling it the Syracuse district office reflected where we are and what we do.”
The district extends from Syracuse to Albany, Paprocki said, and when people outside the area associate Syracuse with the district office, the perception is they don’t believe it is necessarily an accessible resource. The area stretches from the mid-Hudson Valley to the Finger Lakes to the North Country.
Because of COVID-19 and a global pandemic that has paralyzed large and small businesses throughout the nation, the SBA has never played a larger role.
At the SBA, Paprocki is heavily involved in administering the “three Cs”: Access to capital and loan programs; counseling and training programs; and government contracting programs.
“Those are primarily the three programs I am involved in delivering on a daily basis,” said Paprocki, whose duties also include managing the three SBA offices in his district and the employees that staff them.
“Generally speaking, it has been pedal to the metal since March,” Paprocki said. “There’s nothing I can tell you that would describe the volume, intensity and unprecedented situations that we’ve experienced between March and now.”
“Throw in the presidential election and a few other things that have occurred in this country that have been major disruptions to a lot of things,” he added. “It’s been a very, very challenging time.”
To make matters more challenging, the work is being done virtually.
“I’ve been working from home since late March,” said Paprocki, noting that he does go to the office several times during the week to attend to routine matters.
His role has drastically changed from someone who is frequently out in the marketplace and field visiting with business contacts throughout his expansive region.
“That has come to a complete halt for the most part,” he said.
Now, the focus is on how to maximize the district office’s capabilities in terms of getting information out virtually.
“That has been the biggest change as well as managing employees and keeping them engaged,” he said.
Paprocki has accumulated a vast amount of experience and knowledge since he joined the agency in 1987. He’s been at the Syracuse office since 1991.
“The experience that has helped me the most during this time probably has been the relationships and contacts I’ve built up over that time frame,” he said.
He said in his position, it is imperative to be calm and persistent while fielding a vast amount of questions from people seeking help.
Today, that help largely comes through the CARES Act and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan grant and loan program.
He said it has been a challenge to navigate through a lot of confusion and being able to guide not only small business customers but also employees who are receiving directions from multiple sources regarding how to implement program provisions.
The Salamanca native said it is vital to have strong internal communications not only with employees and supervisors, but also with agencies administering other programs.
His team meets virtually every morning at 9:30 a.m.
“Quite honestly, I enjoy that. We’ve never had the kind of communication we have now, even when we all worked in the same office,” he said. “It’s been really enlightening in terms of keeping everybody on the same page. I’m fortunate to have a great team to work with.”
An avid sports fan, Paprocki played sports through his collegiate years.
“I’ve always been an advocate of teamwork and I think that has played very well during this time,” he said.
Paprocki played football and ran both indoor and outdoor track at SUNY Cortland, where he graduated in 1977.
In those days, there were no concussion protocols in football.
“Basically, ice is all we had,” the former running back and kick returner said.
Paprocki got his bachelor’s degree in political science at SUNY Cortland in 1977.
He earned his Master of Business Administration degree at St. Bonaventure University.
An uncertain future
As 2021 dawns, SBA has all of its current programs that it offered pre-pandemic in effect.
Staples such as the SBA’s 7(a) loan program, SBA loan guaranty programs, its 504 loan program, the microloan program, counseling and training programs and government contract program are all up and running and operating at pre-pandemic levels.
On the radar for the SBA is the possibility of a disruptive government shutdown and transitioning to new leadership in Washington.
“We ultimately work directly for the president,” Paprocki said.
From a funding perspective, the district director said the agency is in good shape.
“We’re no longer the best kept secret in government just because of the pandemic,” he said. “We have created a market out there for ourselves with folks who have never heard of the SBA that have applied for Payroll Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans. They are now potential customers going forward.”
Paprocki said if the SBA maximizes its ability to continue to have relationships with all of the new customers it has developed over the past several months, it will do a more effective job in proving its effectiveness by showing actual outcomes regarding what the agency does.
“That’s the big deal in government today. People want to know what they are getting for the money they are putting into agencies such as ours,” he said.
Questions loom as to what the future will look like for businesses and what has changed in the business environment due to COVID-19.
“A lot of people can say, ‘we’re not going to need office space;” “we’re going to be working virtually” or ask, “what about these restaurants and other businesses in downtown Syracuse that rely on office workers to make a living?” Paprocki said. “There are a lot of questions going forward.”
Paprocki said the pandemic sped up processes that were already in effect and happening, especially in retail.
“Not only did it cause a lot of deaths and sickness in people, but the same was true for businesses that were not functioning very well before this happened. It sped up their demise as well,” he added.
Paprocki and staff will be focused on discovering what needs businesses will have down the road and prepare to adjust and pivot to what’s happening in the field.
Paprocki and his wife Ellen have two adult children: Jessica and Bernard III. His wife works as a commissioner on the state’s Workers Compensation Board.
There are 68 district offices within 10 SBA regions across the United States.
When Paprocki arrived at the Syracuse office in 1991, there were about 30 workers in the Syracuse office, 14 in Elmira and seven in Albany.
Today, there are seven employees, two disaster temps and an attorney.
“When I first walked in, there was one computer and it was in a box in my office,” he said.
“We used to do all the work when it came to approving and liquidating loans or litigating cases one by one in our office,” Paprocki said.
Banks used to send in applications to the SBA for review, and the SBA would work directly with commercial bank lenders one loan at a time.
“If a loan went bad, we went through a whole liquidation process. When a loan had to be litigated, we had a whole legal team that was in the office,” Paprocki said.
What the SBA did to change that was establish a centralized process center for the organization, allowing all aspects of the operation to be done in a more consistent manner.
“You could get an opinion on what was an approved SBA loan going from Buffalo to here, and across the country you could have 68 different opinions about what was a good SBA loan and what wasn’t,” he said.
The change allowed lenders — particularly large lenders — to get involved with SBA programs because they received more consistent decisions across state lines.
A reduction in paperwork ensued, and then computers began to streamline operations.
“It’s hard to believe we didn’t even have cell phones back then,” he said. “Cell phones have freed people up with texting and emails, and all that has evolved during my time here.”
“The amount of work that can be done on a daily basis with that many fewer people has exponentially increased as well as the amount and number of loans,” said Paprocki, noting that the number of people the agency has helped more than doubled at a lesser expense to taxpayers.
Streamlining the manner is which different loan programs are processed and giving lenders their own ability to approve loans on site if they demonstrate over a number of years that they understand SBA programs helped to pare down staff, Paprocki noted.
“We gave them the keys to the castle in terms of guaranteeing SBA loans by themselves. They don’t have to come to us,” he added.
In terms of the evolution of the district office, attention became more focused on marketing and outreach.
“This was strange to most people who got hired as accountants and loan officers to do back office kind of work,” he said.
“This was a big change for many people in order to bring that new culture into the office,” Paprocki said. “We now had to market programs, put a face on the SBA and let businesses know that we are here to help them access our programs.”
He noted the development of partnerships was key to all of that.
“We switched from being really whatever came through the door to now being out the door,” he said.
Paprocki is a member of Beaver Meadows Golf Club, the Onondaga Ski Club and Beaver Lake Nature Center. He also bikes, plays the piano and enjoys photography.