Banks launch effort to reverse image

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Robert and Barbara Moreland stock one of their healthy snack vending machines. The couple received a small business loan from Accion, after traditional banks turned them down.

Colorado bankers have launched a campaign that attempts to reverse their image as the tight-fisted scrooge holding up the progress of small business.

The negative image is just not true, said Keith Dickelman, Home State Bank, Loveland senior vice president and Colorado Bankers Association chairman. More than 20 percent of all bank loans in Colorado are to small businesses.

“The challenge that we’ve seen is not every small business is bankable right now,” he said.

For that, there are many reasons: with the downturn in the economy, small businesses don’t have as much collateral as they once did; startups are risky in this economy; and some loan denials are based on restrictions coming down from banking regulators, Dickelman said.

“As regulators, their duty is to make sure the banking industry is on solid footing,” he said.

But bankers don’t want to leave small businesses high and dry, he said. They are making an effort to help small businesses get connected with other funding sources, mostly nonprofit organizations known for providing micro loans to small businesses and startups.

In February, the CBA unveiled its campaign and website, SmallBizLending.org, that promises to put small businesses looking for a loan in touch with the lenders who are giving them, even if those lenders aren’t them.

It’s the first time the bankers have had such an organized effort to connect small business loan applicants with other funding sources, said Caroline Joy, CBA spokeswoman. This new partnership with alternative lending sources brings the lending cycle full-circle — bankers keep their deposit relationships with clients, but don’t turn them away empty handed, she said.

“Rather than stop the conversation, if they are turned down, we want to help educate them so they might take a second attempt, or channel them to another organization,” she said.

There has been a beating of the drum that small businesses don’t have access to capital, said Tony Gagliardi, National Federation of Independent Business, Colorado director. But, in most cases, small businesses just aren’t asking. About 11 percent of the Colorado NFIB membership reported, in a recent survey, that access to capital is their No. 1 problem.

“The U.S. economy is still causing a lot of uncertainty on Main Street, which is a big issue especially for small business owners to even consider borrowing,” he said.

Still, banks have taken a beating in the press, he said. And, the CBA campaign has good intentions.

“Anytime you can pair small businesses that need capital and accessible credit, it’s always advantageous,” Gagliardi said.

It’s crushing when a bank turns down your request for a business loan, said Barbara Moreland. She and her husband Robert had done their homework on buying and operating vending machines. Their plan was to stock natural, organic snacks in high-tech vending machines in Colorado Springs.

But, they were told the business was too risky and that they didn’t have experience in operating their own business. They didn’t qualify for a loan with U.S. Bank.

“It bursts your bubble a little bit,” she said.

But U.S. Bank referred the couple and their healthy snack idea to Accion, a nonprofit lending institution that specializes in microfinance and lending. Accion got its start in South America and in the 1990s brought its micro lending business model the U.S.

In 2009, Accion expanded into Colorado.

Accion gives loans as small as $200 and as high as $300,000. Their interest rates are higher than a traditional bank, usually running from 7 to 18 percent. But, demand is there. From 2010 to 2011, the organization had 100 percent growth in the number of dollars lent, said Justin Vause, Accion Colorado loan officer. The average loan is about $9,000. And, Accion has a 94 percent repayment rate.

“We are not the best fit for everyone,” Vause said. “We look at the same things that banks look at: credit, collateral and character.”

About 50 percent of Accion’s funds are donated with the goal of affecting change and increasing access to capital, Vause said. And banks are the biggest donors to Accion.

“That’s what makes our relationship with banks so natural,” Vause said. “Because of regulations, they can’t lend to startups as easily, or if (the small business) does not meet requirements, we can step in and be more flexible.”

The Moreland’s pitched their organic snack vending machine idea to Accion.

“I thought it was a really interesting business idea,” Vause said. “That they would be focused on healthy snacks — it seemed like a good proposal.”

Accion loaned the Morelands $20,000 to get started and they named their business BnB Snacks. The couple bought three vending machines and they already are making profit on one of the machines.

“The whole idea behind this project is to show that bankers are not grumpy and turning down loans,” Vause said. “But, it’s how do we make sure all the bankers know about all the resources.”