Building a relationship you can bank on

Maintaining a solid relationship with a lender is important in good — and bad — economic times.

Mark Twain once wrote: “A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining and wants it back when it starts to rain.”

Unfortunately, Twain may have had a point about how some entrepreneurs see their banker. Small business owners often view their banker as their adversary rather than as an advocate, but the fact is that your relationship with your local bank is among the most critical for your business success. Just because the loan is closed and you’re making problem-free, regular payments doesn’t mean that you can neglect the relationship. In fact, that’s when you should work to keep communication open. Proper relationship management is critical to keeping you and your business in a position to gain assistance from your banker when it is needed the most.

Today’s financial conditions are a case in point.

Banks continue to struggle to maintain their identity — and their profitability — in the financial marketplace. Diversification, mergers and acquisitions have forever changed the banking landscape. Do not be surprised to find your lender working for one bank this month, another one the following month and a different one six months later. Turnover of lending staff seems to be at an all-time high. And while it’s a topic of some debate, credit scoring has taken much of the decision making out of the hands of local lenders.

Another huge factor is the 2008 mortgage crisis and ensuing recession. While it was devastating to families, individuals and communities, among those suffering the most collateral damage were small businesses, which found it harder and harder to collect payments and balance cash flow.

Apparently many consumers prioritized bill payments, paying mortgages first and postponing credit card, utility, healthcare and payments to local small businesses into delinquency.

The uncertainty and doubt created by the lending crisis also caused banks to tighten lending standards in all sectors, including commercial loans, dramatically impacting small firms’ access to capital. At the same time those small firms experienced slow — and sometimes nonexistent — receivables.

And while the lending crisis has eased and banks are beginning to loan more, the lending landscape has changed significantly, in many cases painfully.

The pain comes from the fact that small businesses rely disproportionately on personal sources of financing for both start-up and day-to-day operational costs. In fact, a survey conducted in 2007 by the national Small Business Association reveals that more than 40 percent of entrepreneurs used credit cards as their primary source of outside financing. Bank loans were reported by 29 percent, and 22 percent of respondents included private loans as a source of financing. More than 70 percent carried credit card balances, and 53 percent reported their credit card terms had gotten tighter in the last five years.

All of this adds up to the need to stay on good terms with your lender.

Here are some tips:

  • Establish a personal relationship.
    The old axiom holds true … people do business with people they know. Invite your banker to your business to learn how it functions. Let the banker feel and touch your business. Point out how certain aspects of your business operations affect your cash flow and capital needs. Treat the banker like you would treat one of your best customers. Familiarity builds trust.
  • Impress with financials and knowledge.
    Provide your banker with regular properly prepared financial statements. Discuss these with the lender to make sure she or he interprets them correctly and is aware that you are reviewing such information regularly and have a good idea of what it shows you about your business. Typically, a quarterly visit with your banker when your business is doing well is appropriate. If your business is experiencing cash flow problems, you may want to visit more often.
  • Make lenders aware of problems early.
    If you anticipate missing payments or needing additional capital, let your lender know as quickly as possible. Keep your lender informed of critical issues affecting your business. Problems tend to expand when not addressed quickly, and bankers hate surprises. If you explain your situation and your future prospects for repayment, you may receive a positive reaction.

The foundation of your banking relationships is built on the premise that you need the banker, and she or he needs you. The banking industry has changed radically, and you as a borrower can prosper by taking a proactive approach to your relationship with your lender and developing it as one of your most important business alliances.

– This article originated from the Georgia SBDC, authored by David Lewis.

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