Bank of America is hiring two bankers in Ocala who will reach out to small local businesses. And several bankers already stationed here said the competition will be healthy for all.
"Ocala is a great market for us," said John Gardner, Bank of America senior vice president and small business banking manager for North Florida and the Panhandle. "We have nine banking centers spread across Marion County. There's a tremendous number of small businesses in Ocala."
Gardner said the economy hit Marion County hard, but the bank believes the economic recovery will be driven by small businesses. He said Bank of America recently surveyed small businesses, and about one-third of respondents said they thought they were financially savvy. That leaves two-thirds that were not.
"There's a huge opportunity to help," Gardner said. "They want a local banker who can sit down with them and learn what their needs are."
When Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) talks about small businesses, it means companies that have sales between $250,000 and $5 million.
The two Ocala positions are posted, and interviews will start next week. Gardner said he expects to have one position filled in November and the other in December.
One banker will be based at the Paddock Park Banking Center, and the territory will include west State Road 200 and Belleview. The other banker will be downtown at the Silver Springs Boulevard office and will serve the 17th Street and Northeast 35th Street locations.
The two bankers are expected to spend most of their time calling on businesses and learning their needs.
Bank of America began its small business banker initiative in Los Angeles in October 2010 and has hired more than 130 small-business bankers in Florida. The plan is to hire two bankers in Gainesville -- one for the Millhopper branch and another for the University Avenue area.
Gardner said that since Bank of America began rolling out this initiative, it has seen a roughly 39 percent increase in loan volume.
"One of the things we do see with a lot of small businesses, with the economy and pullback in revenue, I would say the credit demand and loan demand is not as high as one would expect," he said.
He said the challenges facing small businesses do not always involve credit; sometimes they need help managing collections from customers and cash on hand.
"We have always had a full suite of business products available," Gardner said. "For small businesses, in that segment, we just didn't have dedicated local expertise that was taking that knowledge and information and expertise directly to the customer."
Local bankers welcome the competition, but say their banks' decisions are made locally, whereas decisions by Bank of America generally are made in a small business lending department at headquarters in Charlotte, N.C.
Still, they think Bank of America's push in Ocala and Gainesville is a good sign.
"It's interesting they are putting on people for business banking," said Hugh Dailey, president and chief executive officer of Community Bank & Trust of Florida. "That's optimistic, I guess."
Tom Ingram, chief executive officer of Gateway Bank of Central Florida, agreed.
"It's always a nice reflection of our market if a large bank like that has come in to be committed like that," Ingram said. "We still feel our model works a lot better for small and medium-size businesses than the larger banks' model. The local decision making is, obviously, a key component of what we do."
George Durhan, CenterState Bank of Florida, N.A.'s community president for Marion County, also agreed, and said small business is his bank's core.
"We are dealing with the corporations headquartered here in Alachua and Marion counties," Durhan said. "We are operating in a very decentralized model, so the decision making is at the local level. What that allows us to do is, we can feel the pulse of Marion County and say, 'We are not Brevard County. We are not Dade County. We are not Duval County.' We are able to decide locally what's best for our customer."
Durhan said he is not criticizing the super-regional bank model but thinks those banks lack the agility that small banks like his have. He welcomes the competition.
"Any time there are options for the customer, it's going to be good for the customer," Durhan said. "Our objective has always been to win the business with customer service."
Ingram agrees with Gardner's opinion that small businesses will bring the country out of the recession. "That's the heart and soul of America, really," he said.
"It (Bank of America's move) will make us work harder," Ingram added. "More competition makes us more competitive and aggressive because we want to protect our customers and do the best for small to medium-size businesses."
Dailey said he has seen signs of the economy turning. "We're actually seeing some uptick in demand," Dailey said.
Community Bank & Trust of Florida will open a branch Wednesday at Spruce Creek -- the first it has opened in the county in five to six years.
Dailey said loans have been up in the past four to five months, albeit "just a little."
"It's better than it was the first six months of the year," said Dailey, who sits on the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Jacksonville branch board of directors. "The first six months of the year there was no demand."
He said his bank is seeing good residential demand thanks to low interest rates, but a lot of that demand is for refinancing rather than new loans. He said the demand for automobile loans -- mostly new car loans with zero financing -- has been up some months and down others.
"That's an indication we are still bouncing off the bottom," Dailey said.
He said there is plenty of money to lend, but the demand has not been there. He believes businesses are waiting to see what the corporate tax rate will be for 2013.
He said he is optimistic for the last quarter and is hoping for some business expansion.
And he hopes Bank of America is right. "As long as they bring a lot of loan demand, that's great," Dailey said. "We can fend for ourselves."
Ingram and Durhan wish Bank of America well.
"I wish them luck, but not too much luck," Ingram said with a chuckle.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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