The Pue family business lives by its line of credit.
Air compressors need to be bought and sold, stacks of metal wires and springs restocked, and bulky machinery delivered around the Carolinas. Business has been steady at Engineering Sales Associates, a 19-employee shop that brings in about $5 million a year in revenue.
The company is a prime representation of Bank of America's new push into small-business lending. The bank recently sent a video crew to the warehouse for an internal video.
Seventeen months after CEO Brian Moynihan pledged to the White House that the Charlotte bank would increase lending to small businesses, the bank is touting its numbers.
New loans to businesses with less than $20 million in revenue increased 20 percent in 2011, to $6.4 billion, the bank reported recently. Among businesses with less than $5 million in revenue, lending increased 63 percent in the fourth quarter from the one before.
Bank of America is also nearly three-quarters of the way through hiring 1,000 small-business bankers around the country to provide personal service to existing customers and drum up new business.
It's the first time the bank has had feet on the ground specifically to serve the country's smallest businesses. And at a time when Bank of America is cutting back dramatically in other areas of its business, it represents a significant investment.
"We have noticed a difference," said Arthur Pue, the second generation to work at Engineering Sales Associates. He says the bank is more accessible now. "My father had this company for 51 years. ... He spent more time courting bankers than he did running the company."
Economy watchers have long awaited the return of business lending as a signal of the recovery, and most of the recent results were encouraging. The Federal Reserve said that business lending across the board increased 10 percent last year after two straight years of declines.
But many of the country's smallest businesses are still struggling to improve their sales and pay down debt.
And Bank of America's competitors say the Charlotte bank is a bit late to the game in hiring bankers specifically to serve small businesses, even as they all compete to gain market share in what they view as a significant opportunity.
Moynihan announced the initiative in October 2010, during a luncheon at the Chief Executive Club of Boston. It came soon after the bank was one of 13 to pledge to the White House and the Small Business Administration to increase small-business lending by a collective $20 billion over three years.
Since then, small business has continued to be a focus for Democrats and Republicans.
President Barack Obama mentioned the sector several times in his State of the Union address in January, pledging to "pass an agenda that helps them succeed."
The U.S. House and Senate are considering a bill that will reward small businesses for expanding, and both houses passed a bill last week that would help them raise money.
"There's never been a better time to be in this segment," said Robb Hilson, the Miami-based executive put in charge of Bank of America's smallest business clients. His position was expanded in an October reorganization.
There are some indications that small-business lending is rebounding. The Thomson Reuters/PayNet Small Business Lending Index, a broad measure, is still posting more than 15 percent year-over-year gains.
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