In this episode, Michael Bickers, the Regional President of PNC Bank, joins us to discuss PNC’s initiatives to support startups and small businesses, as well as their commitment to corporate social responsibility. Michael also touches on PNC Bank’s efforts in workforce development and talent retention, their focus on diversity and inclusion, and their positive outlook on the economic future of the Ann Arbor region.
Paul Krutko: Welcome to Ann Arbor SPARK’s CEO podcast. This is Conversations on Economic Opportunity. My name is Paul Krutko, and I’m the president and CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK. Welcome to a series of conversations with key leaders from those sectors.
Joining me today is Michael Bickers, Regional President of PNC Bank here in Michigan. With over 30 years of experience in the financial industry, Michael has held various leadership positions within PNC Bank since joining in 1990. He has gained extensive experience in commercial and retail banking, and served as the retail market manager for Detroit from 2006 to 2018. In his current role, Michael is PNC’s lead banker in southeast Michigan and chairs the local PNC Foundation. He’s actively involved in the business community serving on the boards of organizations such as the Business Leaders of Michigan, the Detroit Economic Club, the Detroit Regional Chamber, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and the Downtown Detroit Partnership. Michael is also a member of PNC’s Corporate Talent and Diversity Council.
Michael, thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us today.
Michael Bickers: Oh, it’s my pleasure to be with you, Paul.
Paul: Well, great. I’ve got some questions. You know, what we like to do is to share with our audience more about a key partner like PNC for SPARK. So let me just kick off on that. One of SPARK’s main focuses, you know, in our work program, is entrepreneurship and innovation. And I know that PNC contributes to fostering entrepreneurship and innovation, and I was wondering if you could share some specific programs and initiatives that you have been implementing to support startups and small businesses.
Michael: That’s a great question, Paul. First, thanks for having me. So across our footprint, we have relationships with over a million small businesses. And, as a national Main Street Bank, as you’ve heard me talk about, what we do is offer entrepreneurs insight and guidance on how to do everything from registering their businesses to getting a federal tax ID. All these things seem pretty basic to some, but turns out a lot of people need help all the way to funding a startup. We have experts that we’ve built out and hired since the pandemic, actually, that are always available to help with business planning, growth, finance and wellbeing, and operational technical assistance. Those are the types of services that we provide.
Paul: Well, that’s fabulous because it’s very similar to our work in the sense that we know, and I mean the number that you just shared, you know, a million, is amazing. But we do, as you say, in our work, we know that many times it’s that little basic help, like you said, tax ID number, you know, helping them set up a marketing plan or something like that, that is really critical for that business moving forward, because they may have a great idea or great product, but that basic business support things can sometimes be where they stumble. So that’s fabulous that you guys have those kinds of resources available.
I know also that you and the Bank have a strong commitment to corporate social responsibility. How does that commitment translate into your activities and are there any specific social impact projects or initiatives that you’re particularly proud of?
Michael: Yeah. You know, Paul, the thing is I’ve been around a long time and I’ve seen program after program get announced and you can’t tell or measure what’s happened. The community, you know, once it’s become a hot item to talk about, the accountability sometimes kind of fades, and we wanted to make certain that that did not happen. For example, in late 2021, the PNC Foundation announced a five-year $17 million grant to Howard University to create a center for entrepreneurship education and research to serve the nation’s network of 101 historically black colleges, universities, and their communities. Now that grant is part of our four-year community benefits plan and me, Michael Bickers, I’m responsible for me and my team delivering that plan throughout southeast Michigan, which the company as a whole will invest around $88 billion in loans, investments, and other financial support really to benefit low and moderate-income people and families and communities, people in communities of color, underserved neighborhoods, underserved schools and the like.
And so just last year we also launched our minority business development group. They happened to sit right around the corner from me and that was created to help prepare minority-owned businesses for effective growth, development, and sustainability. And that group is run by a good friend of mine, Marshalynn Odneal. I hope you can meet her soon. Again, she’s based right here. And so what I have seen are programs when you talk about minority businesses, Paul, in particular, is the focus is always like a hundred percent on a loan. And that’s a mistake. It’s got to be wraparound, it’s got to be about technical assistance, operations, billing, communication systems, process, all of that stuff, talent retention. So we’ve tried to build it out such that we wrap around sort of the capital access piece and we think it’ll help businesses be more successful.
Paul: It’s really interesting because I want to share with you, I just got off a call. You know, there’s a group of us who are trying to develop an application to the federal government under the CHIPS Act for the Tech Hub designation. And one of the conversations that’s important in that application, and I’m going to connect with the person you mentioned, is how do we help minority businesses participate in forming technology startups and helping them grow in Southeast Michigan? And one of the things that we’ve been talking about is just what you said. How do you help them as a business, not just on the financing side, but how do you help them as a business? So I’m going to follow up with you on that one.
So how does PNC Bank support workforce development and talent retention? Are there any educational training programs that you sponsor? You talked about this minority business effort, but are there others that you want to share or did you collaborate on relative to the workforce and the community?
Michael: Yeah, it’s great to be able to talk about the stuff that we’re doing with all our various partners. So we just, for the Detroit market, committed $1 million to bring the national nonprofit called INROADS and their College Links program to Metro Detroit this fall for the first time. College Links is designed to help prepare ethnically diverse high school students for post-secondary education in successful careers. The program will also create a pipeline of talent for employers and foster more diverse workplaces. INROADS is based out of St. Louis. They have over 30,000 alumni and serve more than 4,000 students in cities around the country. And that really compliments our work. The $500 million Grow Up Great program, as you know, where our focus is on children from the ages of zero to five. That early, early childhood sort of development piece, we think, combines young people with pre-K children. What we’re trying to do, Paul, is take it from sort of that birth almost to right through college and just go sort of shoulder-to-shoulder support because that’s where we think future talent has to come from, obviously.
Paul: Okay. That makes tremendous sense. And one of the things, again, I’m referencing this other project we’re working on, is that that’s part of one of the concepts is how do we prepare the community diverse populations to fully participate, you know, in the growth of the economy in general. So those are super initiatives. I really, really appreciate you sharing that.
And it kind of relates to the second to the final question here. Can you speak to the importance of diversity and inclusion in economic development and maybe there are some other initiatives that you might want to share about how PNC is promoting diversity and inclusion within your own operations and in initiatives that you support?
Michael: Yeah, that’d be great. So, you know, I think every company or organization probably has, as a part of their 5, 6, 7 sort of core values or mission statements, you will see diversity and inclusion. And I can tell you personally that this journey in earnest started for us around here, probably around 1992, I would say, with the Rodney King sort of episode and, and that painful piece of it. So it goes back a long way for us. The fact of the matter is, being an African-American myself, I know what a big help it was for me to have so many people in the company supporting me. It was like a village that sort of held me up to coach and mentor and guide. And we have to do that for everybody, no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from. We need to create an environment where everybody feels comfortable, where they can contribute, they can thrive, take care of their families, give back to the community. If you don’t, I can’t have an employee base that doesn’t look like the communities in which we serve, because that means there’s a whole lot of people that aren’t going to be comfortable when they come visit our branches or offices. So that’s why it’s important to us, especially when you look at the diversity that we’re blessed with in Southeast Michigan.
So we’ve implemented, when you think about even just Washtenaw County, with the official bank, by the way, of the University of Michigan, and the fabulous students and faculty there, and we do a ton of work with them. That’s why we built out the new branch on campus there years ago. Very proud of that relationship for the past 10 years. We’ve sponsored the Leadership Crisis Challenge, a premier action-based learning experience that immerses its participants in simulated business and media crises. And we expect, obviously, for our kids over the next three years, we expect many of them hopefully to come from Ypsilanti when you start talking about INROADS and College Links.
But you know what, Paul, I would also say, you know, kudos to you because you and I got pretty connected almost right away when I became regional president a year ago. And you’ve made Ann Arbor SPARK just to continue to be a great partner for us. And so, as another example, just sitting with you and your fabulous economic development team last week with my team around, how do we do more to support housing, residential housing in Washington County? And you know what? With you, me, and your team, we’re going to get that done over the next several years. We’re excited about it all.
Paul: Yeah. Because, you know, as you have a growing economy, which we do in and around Ann Arbor, what becomes important is that more people come here, you want to keep the housing supply growing, because if you don’t, then that does create new problems for folks who may have lower incomes, right? They get priced out of the market and then you have all kinds of other issues. So we’re really excited about trying to find opportunities that we can bring to you and your team, that are great projects, great deals, that can help us with that problem. And we really appreciated, you know, the fact that you came out and brought all your senior leaders to talk with us.
So that’s kind of really the final question and you kind of already touched on it. You know, when you look from your perch, which I’ve been to over there in the tower, and you look out, you look out to the west, in the overall region, what is your perception of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County and, and its potential as we move forward?
You know, in, in this, you know, the second decade, well, we’re actually in the third decade, I guess. Yeah. The 21st century. You’ve got a perspective because of the relationship with U of M, but I’m just wondering as we close out, what do you see as the future in this part of Southeast Michigan?
Michael: Well, you know, it’s two pieces because one’s inside of, I would take it broadly for Southeast Michigan, but as it relates to Ann Arbor and Washtenaw in particular, we’ve been very sort of focused on making certain that, and I love all our communities, but we didn’t want to give the perception to the marketplace that we only felt there were one or two communities that needed attention. All our communities need attention, and that includes Washtenaw. And that’s where I get into, whether it’s the small business support we offer or whether it’s working together to have affordable housing — high value, high quality, by the way — affordable housing in Washtenaw and surrounding communities.
But the thing is, what keeps me so excited is, you know, when you go back, if you consider the economy to be tough right now with interest rates or threat of recession or this or that, here’s the fact: Michigan itself, Southeast Michigan inside of that, has never been stronger ever economically during difficult times. Normally we would be talking about, you know, General Motors, Ford, FCA / Chrysler laying off thousands of people, shedding plants everywhere. All of that would be the talk around Michigan.
Instead, you’ve got each one of them announcing multi-billion dollar investments in what seems like every single month, if not every single week. And so I think we need to stay excited about that. I really think we ought to be more confident and actually more positive than some are right now. Because I think Michigan’s just the place to be. I don’t need extreme weather. I don’t think any business likes the threat of that. I don’t need it to be 102 degrees on the other end of it. So, you know, I just love our region. I think we’re set, we’ve got some of the best universities, the best workforce. That’s why I know we can focus on all our counties that need our help and with you guys and your partnership, I think we’ll be just fine.
Paul: Yeah, I think that’s an important point to close on. You’ve worked in other markets, I’ve worked around the country, and one of the things I think is that we don’t tell our story strongly enough. It’s not that we don’t tell our story, but I think that we have a really positive story to tell the rest of the country and the world. The work of one of our partners, the Detroit Regional Partnership, is a voice for us outwardly, and telling that story is really important. We do that ourselves, but we kind of really focus in on the technology side of the economy. But, you know, there’s this whole phrase, “Michigan nice,” you know, that we’re humble and you know, we compete with some other regions that don’t worry about sort of bragging about who they are and what they do. And, you’re right. I think we have a bright future ahead and I’m really pleased that we can work with you and the Bank to make that happen.
Michael: Thank you, my friend. I really appreciate your guys’ time today. You and Carly have been fantastic.
Paul: Yeah. Well, listen, thanks. Thank you for taking the time. You know, I know how busy you are and we really appreciate you doing this.
Michael: Thank you, guys. Have a wonderful day.
Paul: And I want to thank our audience for listening and learning more about those leaders and organizations working hard to create the Ann Arbor region’s economic future. These conversations are brought to you by Ann Arbor SPARK. For more information about Ann Arbor SPARK, you can find us on the web at annarborusa.org, and also on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
Michael Bickers’ Bio
Michael G. Bickers is executive vice president and regional president for PNC Bank in Detroit and Southeast Michigan.
Prior to being named to his current role in March 2022, Bickers served as Midwest territory manager for PNC’s Retail Bank, responsible for leading the branch network and partner teams throughout the region.
Bickers, with more than 30 years of financial industry experience, has held several leadership positions since joining PNC in 1990, including key roles in commercial and retail banking. He served as retail market manager for Detroit from 2006 to 2018. Prior to being named Midwest territory manager in April 2022, Bickers served as group manager, market manager and Midwest territory executive.
Bickers is an active board member of Business Leaders of Michigan, Detroit Economic Club, Detroit Regional Chamber, Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Downtown Detroit Partnership. He also has served on the Business School Advisory Council of Oakland University’s Business School in Rochester Hills, Michigan. In addition, he has served on PNC’s Corporate Talent and Diversity Council.
Bickers earned his bachelor’s degree in finance from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and holds an MBA in Business Administration.