TCF Financial in Minneapolis and Chemical Financial in Detroit had prepared for a daunting integration as part of their $3.6 billion merger.

They underestimated the challenge.

The $50 billion-asset company that emerged from the deal, which closed about a year ago, had to navigate the coronavirus pandemic, civil unrest in each bank’s home city and flooding across Michigan as integration teams worked through an extensive checklist.

TCF, which completed a companywide systems conversion on Aug. 10, finished many tasks remotely, learning along the way how to become more efficient. The integration relied more heavily on smaller teams and meetings were more focused on tightly defined tasks, making projects easier to manage.

“Productivity really popped” as a result of eliminated commute times and office distractions, said James Costa, chief risk officer for TCF’s bank and the executive in charge of the integration.

Those efforts should serve TCF well whenever it returns to bank M&A, and its experience could act as a blueprint for other acquirers looking to become more efficient with integrations.

To be sure, employees had their doubts in March when the pandemic set in. They were wrestling with changes to their daily lives and jobs, while coping with the sudden stress and uncertainty imposed by the coronavirus.

“People were anxious,” Costa said. “They were very concerned.”

Costa and a team of more than 50 bankers — selected from the major departments across TCF and Chemical — did the only thing they could, shifting more than 90% of the work to remote setups while increasing the use of digital meeting tools.

The host of challenges, in many ways, galvanized the integration effort, said Tom Butterfield, TCF’s chief information officer and the key leader on the technology side of the integration.

“We got this done in spite of a pandemic, in spite of civil unrest, in spite of flooding,” Butterfield said. “There is a shared empathy and patience with the situation that lends itself to strong communication.”

TCF braced itself for all sorts of possible complications, Butterfield said. While a digital banking conversion evolved from a one-week effort to a switch that took place over four weekends, most other items on the checklist went as planned.

“We had mitigation scenarios, but we didn’t end up needing them,” Butterfield said. “We stayed on track.”

Butterfield said he was particularly impressed with staffers’ resolve during the civil unrest that erupted after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Many TCF employees and customers were personally concerned about the challenges amplified by Floyd's killing.

Heavy rains in May and the failure of two dams caused flooding in Michigan that forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes. TCF in May launched a special $10 million loan fund for residents and businesses affected by the flooding. Loans were aimed at helping clients buy supplies and rebuild quickly.

TCF, with the integration complete, can focus more on achieving the $321 million in annual expense savings, including the closing of 13 overlapping branches. Executives said during a recent earnings call that they were on track to hit their target by the end of this year.

With 500 branches across nine states, TCF has the scale to put more investment into technology, products and talent needed to compete with bigger banks, executives said.

Early indications are clouded to a degree by the pandemic, with traditional loan demand muted as consumers and businesses delay purchases and investments.

But Costa said TCF has high growth expectations coming out of the pandemic in major cities across the Midwest, as well as in specialty national business lines such as leasing. In the meantime, credit quality is solid and capital levels are strong.

“We’re being tested now, and we’re holding up well,” he said.