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Signs of a Comeback in Small-business Lending

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Name a charity and Karen Conroy's small business, Fundraising for a Cause, has a product line to help people raise money for it.

Pink ribbon sweatbands for breast cancer awareness. Teal bangles for anti-bullying. Coffee mugs, bracelets, teddy bears -- 2,600 products in all.

After several years of strong growth, however, Conroy's company itself was in need of fundraising to help meet surging online demand. She had great credit, with revenues doubling annually, and had grown to 13 employees. Still, over the past couple of years, several big banks turned down her loan applications.

Since the onset of the recession, small businesses across the nation have faced the same problem: Banks have been reluctant to lend because they had written too many bad loans and regulators had demanded they impose stricter lending guidelines.

Growth and hiring suffered as a result.

Recently, however, Conroy found the financial lift she needed: She refinanced her original SBA loan and received a new $200,000 line of credit through USAmeriBank.

The money allowed her to double her warehouse space from 7,000 to 15,000 square feet, beef up inventory and hire up to six more people, including three immediately.

All three had been out of work, and one had been on food stamps.

"Oh, my gosh," Conroy said. "It's amazing how far this $200,000 can go."

Small-business lending, as Conroy bears witness, is on the comeback trail.

It's a message coming from community banks to megabanks like Bank of America, which is in the midst of recruiting 130 more bankers across Florida dedicated to knocking on the doors of mom-and-pop companies.

Longtime small-business adviser Jim Parrish has heard the "We're lending" refrain from banks before during this prolonged economic recovery -- but this time he believes it.

At USF's Small Business Development Center in Tampa, loans over the past three months have been running 20 to 30 percent above year-ago levels.

"We're seeing deals that six months to a year ago would have been denied that are now getting approved," said Parrish, the small-business center's assistant director.

Last month, the SBDC held financing fairs in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties for entrepreneurs to chat one-on-one with bankers. Each event drew more than 100 business owners and 15 to 20 bankers.

Construction loans are still soft, Parrish said, but there's percolating interest in just about every other type of lending: lines of credit, equipment loans, even capital for startup projects.

The lending comeback extends far beyond Tampa Bay, according to Cassius Butts, U.S. Small Business Administration regional administrator for an eight-state territory that includes Florida.

His region completed $3.5 billion in SBA loans in its just-ended fiscal year. That's far higher than the loan volume during the height of the credit freeze and second only to the record of nearly $4 billion set in fiscal 2011, a year that Butts said was deceptively high because of stimulus programs that helped prop up results.

"Overall, the economy is getting on track to where it needs to be, and that's without additional stimulus," he said. "It's really happening all over the place, from manufacturing to goods and services to importing/exporting, particularly here in Florida."

Like Parrish, Butts said the increase has been noticeable just recently.

"This fourth quarter (that ended Sept. 30) is the highest volume we've had the entire year."

In Florida alone, the dollar amount of SBA loans was up 17 percent in the fourth quarter compared to a year ago and double the amount lent out two years ago.

Bank of America closed on $814 million in small-business loans in Florida in the first half of the year, up 39 percent from a year ago.

"We've seen an incredible increase in lending," said Steve Turner, Bank of America's sales executive over small-business banking for the southeast. Turner, who is based in Tampa, attributes part of that to rising demand and part to the bank being more aggressive in seeking customers and building relationships.

Based on a recent Florida Chamber of Commerce business survey, economic uncertainty -- not lack of financing -- has emerged as the primary obstacle these days to small-business lending.

Despite the success stories, there are still many companies denied financing. And small business lending levels are not up everywhere.

Some Tampa Bay counties, like Pasco, have seen a big jump in SBA loans compared to a year ago while others, like Hillsborough, are down from last year. In Pinellas County, there were 17 SBA loans in September, up from 13 a year ago, but the total volume of loans was down, from $9.4 million to $6 million.

Allen Brinkman, chairman and CEO of SunTrust Bank Tampa Bay, said small-business lending is trending up overall, but activity varies widely based on the industry, the particular business and the size of the loan sought.

"Microbusinesses are still kind of choppy, but overall the tenor is up no matter how you look at it," he said. "Lending in certain segments has seen massive increases year over year. . . . Some are relatively stagnant. "

Still, the country appears to be beyond the credit freeze era that helped prolong the recession. The improved environment, observers say, is due in no small part to healthier banks that have more confidence plus the regulatory green light to lend.

Moreover, Butts said, both the SBA and banks are going to greater lengths to work with prospects who may not immediately qualify for loans. Some may work on a six-month plan to become loan-worthy; others might qualify for nontraditional loans.

At Bank of America, Turner said lenders have been steering many companies that don't qualify for conventional loans to the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Fund. The federal program, which has been on the books since 1994, has emerged as a key way during the recession to channel money for business startups and other services in low-income communities.

Key is finding the right program to match an individual company's needs.

Conroy, the entrepreneur behind Fundraising for a Cause, believes that's one way she lucked out.

She launched her business five years ago on credit cards. Three years ago she secured an SBA loan. But she was stymied in efforts to refinance that loan or, more importantly, secure a line of credit to expand.

"The big banks turned me down, and it was very frustrating," she said. The Bank of Tampa told her she would have to prove she had enough liquid capital to cover any loan and personally guarantee it. Her home already was used as collateral for the initial loan.

Then, USAmeriBank, working in tandem with USF's Small Business Development Center, set her up with a Working Capital CAPLines loan for which she could use her business inventory as collateral. The SBA approved the deal in September.

Last week, Conroy strolled through the larger warehouse space her company had assumed next door, her two poodle-bichon frise mixes trailing close by her heels. October had arrived, a.k.a Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and workers were ramping up for one of the busiest times of the year. Much of the new warehouse was already full.

She marveled at how the business had grown from shipping a bunch of boxes out of her house. And she smiled broadly describing how the line of credit enabled her to hire people who had been unemployed.

"This money," she said, "can make a difference in a lot of ways."

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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