Banking partner Featured

5:12am EDT April 29, 2003
As a business owner, you rely on your accountant and attorney to offer guidance and suggestions.

But you can also turn to your banker for advice and assistance. Here are some ways to ensure your banker becomes your partner.

Know your bank

Research your bank. Consider its financial strength and plans for the future.

Determine if it plans to increase its size and market or if it's waiting to be purchased by a larger organization. Find out if there is a dedicated group of relationship managers and products specifically for small businesses, and ask about plans for the future of the group.

Ask about caps on loan amounts. Additionally, determine your bank's involvement with and knowledge of government programs. Make sure it can meet your business's needs.

Give some thought to your business's long-term plan and what you'll need from your bank to help you get there, and evaluate whether your current financial institution will be able to meet those needs.

Know the process

Ask your banker to explain the loan approval process and the sales process for other bank products.

The trend is for banks to handle credit requests for small businesses through a centralized process. This process generally relies on credit scoring and a cookie-cutter system, allowing little room for flexibility, creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.

A centralized lending group can work fine if all aspects of the business, its financials and the request are black and white, but it leaves little room for variations and gray areas. Also ask about pricing and structure for other bank products, including deposit and treasury management products.

Determine if all costs and features are fixed or if they can be tailored to meet your needs.

Know the decision-maker

Find out if your banker has the authority to make decisions on loans, pricing and other issues that could affect your business.

If he or she has little or no authority, ask who does and request a meeting with that person. Make sure the decision-maker understands your business, its history and your plans.

Know your banker

Find a banker with whom you're comfortable and whom you can trust. Find out if your contact is dedicated to working with small businesses or if the position is just a stepping stone.

Determine his or her level of expertise, not only about the bank but about the economy, the community and small business needs and opportunities.

Ask yourself if your banker is proactive or reactive. Do you only see or hear from him or her when you initiate the call, or does he or she call or visit you regularly? Do you have to ask about new products and services, or are they suggested and offered?

Make your expectations clear on issues such as frequency of meetings, suggestions and recommendations for products and services, and the level of involvement you're looking for.

Your banker is a great source of information and can help you network within the local business community. Most important, he or she can be your financial partner in helping to ensure your business is successful. Jane Bittcher is vice president, business development group, at Fifth Third Bank. Reach her at(614) 233-4562 or