Small businesses should get to know their banker

The last thing anyone in the Small Business Development Center’s business planning class expected was relationship advice.

The participants had spent 13 weeks and 39 hours developing business plans, working the numbers, developing spreadsheets and practicing their 30-second “commercial,” also known as the business pitch. They, the 13 business hopefuls in the class, are sure they have an attractive small-business idea.

Still, they wondered aloud, even if they showed off their well-developed, in-depth business plan, how could they turn the head of a banker?

Then someone said it: “Having a relationship with a banker is important.”

There was suddenly a sparkle in their eyes — a chance that a banker would see their business, understand the blood, sweat and tears they had poured into it, and look beyond the bottom line.

In a crowded world where small businesses are touting credit scores and producing the required three-year financials to be considered by some banks for a loan, small-business owner Sarah Hoard is hopeful that there is a banking relationship for everyone. She learned from local lenders that there are big commercial banks, smaller community banks, alternative nonprofit lenders and federally sponsored lending programs. All are interested in small businesses.

“It’s a good feeling to know there are options,” said Hoard, who owns Cornerstone Multisport, a discount triathlon shop.

This month, the 13 hopefuls — some of whom already run a small business, some hoping to launch a small business — completed the SBDC’s Leading Edge Program, an intensive training course that provides business owners and entrepreneurs with guidance in cash-flow management, marketing, finance, personnel and legal issues.

It’s not for the faint of heart. Participants had to examine their business proposals and be honest about their viability.

Mark Bittle, CenturyLink market development manager, led the class and pulled no punches. He handed one business plan back to its writer and said: “Start over. And this time put your heart into it.”

Bittle now is reviewing the 13 business plans. He’ll forward the best to the state level, where business plans from 14 SBDCs will be considered for recognition and prizes.

Now comes the tough part: striking a rapport with a banker. No matter the bankers — large, community, nonprofit — they want more than cold hard numbers, says Robin Roberts, Pikes Peak National Bank president. They want to see how a business has grown. They want to be there on ribbon-cutting day and want to be invited into the business for a tour. They want to know why someone cares so much about the business, she said.

“Your banker is more than doing your loan,” Roberts said. “They should know your business.”

Pikes Peak National Bank has a long-standing relationship with area small businesses, especially those with less than $2 million in revenue. But these relationships don’t just happen, Roberts said. They take work. And bankers still want to be wooed — convinced that a business is worth their effort.

No one ought to walk in cold with a business proposal to a banker they’ve never met, said Justin Vause of the Accion, Colorado loan office. Accion specializes in micro-loans ranging from $200 to $300,000. He wants to see commitment — he will consider whether a business owner bootstrapped the business and whether the owner believes the business can grow before entering a partnership. He wants to know a small-business owner won’t walk away when things get tough, he said.

“When I hear that someone has worked with the SBDC, that right there tells me a lot about the character — that you take it seriously and you didn’t just have an idea yesterday and come in asking for money,” Vause said.

The key to a solid relationship is finding out about your bank’s lending policy, said Greg Welch, BVAA Compass Bank vice president. Find out what kind of programs the bank offers and the criteria for small-business loans, he said. Then there won’t be hurt feelings when the banker tells you he’s not attracted to businesses with less than two years of business receipts.

“Relationships are huge for securing financing,” he said. “Go ask, are you small-business friendly? Tell me about your products.”

Even if not needing a loan, small-business owners should stop by and visit their banker anyway, Welch says. Ask around, Roberts adds, to learn where other small businesses bank and why they like their banker.

“You should feel comfortable with your banker — it should be someone who returns your phone calls,” Roberts said.

Small businesses should be planning for the future, Roberts said. When the economy was roaring in 2005, no one could predict what would happen in 2008. It’s a lesson, Roberts said, to think long term and know who will be standing by when a business can’t make payroll.

No one in the SBDC’s Leading Edge class said it would be easy. The participants learned about accountability. They learned about community resources available to them. They learned the difference between LLC and S corps. But maybe the biggest eye-opener was Relationship 101:

“Tonight, I learned that my business banker is supposed to call me back,” said Matt Winzenried, who is developing a technology company for vending machines.

That’s just good relationship advice.