After 1 Year of PPP, a Former SBA Official on the 'Herculean' Effort Getting the $750 Billion Program Off the Ground

“Those Costco runs were lifesavers,” says Bill Briggs, of the early days of the Paycheck Protection Program, a forgivable loan offering that’s helped millions of U.S. small businesses access about $750 billion in aid. Briggs most recently served as the acting associate administrator for the Small Business Administration’s Office of Capital Access, where he oversaw the launch of the current round of the PPP and served as the SBA’s liaison to financial institutions. Here, in honor of the one-year anniversary of the forgivable loan program, Briggs discusses what it was like to get the PPP off the ground. –As told to Diana Ransom

In March, a small handful of SBA staffers set up shop in a makeshift operations center. Coffee, candy, and chips–amid relentless conference calls and thousands of emails–kept us afloat as a small, sleep-deprived crew was trying to save small businesses across America.

At the time, we had no idea how much time we’d end up spending with one another, nor whether our rescue attempts would be in vain. Congress had begun channeling more than $1 trillion to SBA as part of the federal government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Cares Act was the most robust law enacted after state-mandated shutdowns began in mid-March. Its signature creation was the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

It’s first day of operation–April 3, 2020–was one for the history books. The teams at SBA and Treasury had worked tirelessly to ensure the program could save drowning small businesses in time. The night before, SBA and Treasury released PPP guidelines along with streamlined borrower applications to try and make the process as easy as possible.

When SBA turned on the loan processing system and began accepting PPP loan submissions that April morning, agency officials waited with baited breath for what would come next.

Soon, the makeshift ops center was alive, as field staff relayed pain points and things needing to be fixed. We knew it was going to be bumpy, as government programs often take months to launch. Delivering a $349 billion forgivable loan program–in less than a week–at the start of a pandemic was an historic, Herculean effort.

Two hours after launch, in came a caustic text from a prominent trade association CEO: “This is looking like an epic fail.” CNN obtained an internal email chronicling technical and other glitches, while the rest of the media screamed and sneered at every operational challenge, poised to pounce on the program as a bust.

At 2 pm eastern, the team was being asked to explain to the largest banks in the country what was happening, shortly after briefing Treasury and SBA leadership. Then we had to brief the White House and a stakeholder conference call with thousands of people on the line. Next came Congress.

Meanwhile, many in the ops center and across SBA had not left their desks for hours. PPP lenders were in high gear, too.

By mid-day, lenders across the country had started sending loans to SBA for processing. A bank in Guam closed eight loans, while a bank in Montana did the most first-day PPP loans with 416 loans totaling $156 million. By day’s end, over 1,100 lenders had submitted loans worth $5.5 billion. Within 14 days, SBA would process 14 years’ worth of SBA loans. Within 30 days, SBA would process over $500 billion worth of PPP loans. One year later, SBA and nearly 5,500 PPP lenders have processed almost 9 million loans worth nearly $750 billion.

To this day, PPP continues to deliver, with Congress extending the program until May 31. The dedicated SBA career staff and contractors there have not come up for air in more than a year, meaning working weekends are the rule, rather than the exception. The same goes for thousands of PPP lenders and the people who made PPP possible, including CPAs, non-profit groups, and government officials at all levels.

The PPP journey of a thousand miles began with some uneasy steps on that April morning. Americans should take pride in how far the program and the country’s small businesses have come in that time, while also acknowledging the remaining challenges facing both.