Small businesses are a vital part of Florida's economic health, but many are often challenged when it comes to finances, so Bank of America has announced it is hiring specialists to address those issues.
The Charlotte, N.C.-based institution said this week it is hiring more than 130 small business bankers across Florida to offer guidance to small business owners in the state.
Among the 34 coming to the Central Florida area, two will be in Lakeland and Winter Haven.
"In the environment we're in, we know that small business is the engine that's going to turn our nation around," said Paul Rubino, Bank of America's small business banking manager for Polk County and other parts of Central Florida. "We're looking to get in front of as many small business clients as we can to help them on a daily basis."
Florida has about 2 million small businesses, and they employ nearly half of the state's private-sector work force, according to the Small Business Administration.
The small business bankers being hired by Bank of America will work with the bank's existing clients and try to bring in new small business owners. They will assess companies' needs and consult with owners at their place of business, making recommendations based on individual deposit, credit and financial management needs, according to Bank of America.
Polk County small businesses can also get help from other organizations, such as the Small Business Development Council and Lakeland Council for Entrepreneurial Development at the Lakeland Economic Development Council and Polk State College's entrepreneurship program.
Several other banks and credit unions also offer specialized service to small business owners.
"Oftentimes, clients don't really need credit as they think. It may be an efficiency issue with being able to manage their cash flow more effectively on a daily basis, and that's where a small business banker will come in," Rubino said.
The program will focus on clients with $250,000 to $5 million in annual revenues.
Many small business owners are challenged when it comes to understanding financial management, said LaTrice Moore, program coordinator for the entrepreneurship program at Polk State College in Lakeland.
There is always room for guidance in such areas as banking, management and planning, she said, especially when businesses are just getting off the ground.
A Bank of America report found that nearly three-quarters of small business owners said they needed occasional or ongoing expert help and financial guidance.
The same survey found that several small business owners weren't utilizing readily available tools and resources to improve management of their finances.
Moore agreed with that.
"Especially since we've had the financial meltdown, a lot of small businesses don't know where to go," she said.
Bob Gernert, executive director at Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce, said the vast majority of his organization's members are small businesses and many have trouble finding resources that would help them grow.
"Bank of America's program and other similar services, such as those offered by our Small Business Development Center of the Central Florida Development Council, can make a genuine difference in the success rate for this business segment," he said.
The Bank of America program is part of a larger plan to hire 1,000 small business bankers nationwide. The company said it plans to hire people who are entrenched in the community, and the Lakeland and Winter Haven hires will have to fit that criterion.
"I think it would have a positive impact if Bank of America comes in and establishes a relationship with the leaders of the community that are already working with the small business," Moore said.
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