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Most small businesses owners will, at some point in their life, go to a bank or other lending institution to borrow money for expansion of their operation. Unfortunately, many of them will fall victim to several of the common, but potentially destructive myths that concern applying for loans such as:

  • Lenders are lined up and eager to provide money to small businesses.
  • Banks are willing sources of financing for start-up businesses.
  • When it comes to seeking money, the company speaks for itself.
  • A bank, is a bank, is a bank, and all banks are the same.
  • Banks, especially large ones, do not need and really do not want the business of a small firm.
  • Loans are obtained by talking the lender out of funds.

About 48 percent of business owners report a major bank as their primary financing relationship, with another 34 percent noting that a regional or community bank is their main financing partner for capital, according to a 2014 working paper, The State of Small Business Lending: Credit Access During the Recovery and how Technology May Change the Game, published by the Harvard Business Review.

This places banks among the largest sources of credit; and makes them one of the most vital components to small business survival. Understanding what your bank wants, and how to properly approach them, can mean the difference between getting your money for expansion and having to scrape through finding cash from other sources.

A Mile in the Banker's Shoes

There is a name for people who simply walk into a bank and ask for money... Bank Robbers. To present yourself as a trustworthy businessperson, dependable enough to repay borrowed money, you need to first understand the basic principles of banking. Your chances for receiving a loan will greatly improve if you can see your proposal through a banker's eyes and appreciate the position that they are coming from.

Banks have a responsibility to government regulators, depositors, and the community in which they reside. While a bank's cautious perspective may be irritating to a small business owner, it is necessary in order to keep the depositors money safe, the banking regulators happy, and the economic health of the community growing.

Picking a Local Favorite

Banks differ in the types of financing they make available, interest rates charged, willingness to accept risk, staff expertise, services offered, and in their attitude toward small business loans.

Selection of a bank is essentially limited to your choices from the local community. Banks outside of your area are not anxious to make loans to your firm because of the higher costs of checking credit and of collecting the loan in the event of default.

Furthermore, a bank will typically not make business loans to any size business unless a checking account or money market account is maintained. Out-of-town banks know that non-local firms are not likely to keep meaningful deposits at their institution because it is too costly in both time and expense to do so.

Ultimately your task is to find a business-oriented bank that will provide the financial assistance, expertise, and services your business requires now and is likely to require in the future. Your accountant will be able to assist you in deciding which bank will best suit your needs and provide the greatest value.

Realize the Value of Schmooze

Devote time and effort to building a background of information and goodwill with the bank you choose, and get to know the loan officer you will be dealing with early on.

Building a favorable climate for a loan request should begin long before the funds are actually needed. The worst possible time to approach a new bank is when your business is in the throes of a financial crisis.

Remember that bankers are essentially conservative lenders with an overriding concern for minimizing risk. Logic dictates that this is best accomplished by limiting loans to businesses they know and trust.

Experienced bankers know full well that every firm encounters occasional difficulties; a banker you have taken the time and effort to build a rapport with will have faith that you can handle these difficulties.

A responsible reputation for debt repayment may also be established with your bank by taking small loans, repaying them on schedule, and meeting all facets of the agreement in both letter and spirit. By doing so, you gain the bankers trust and loyalty. He or she will consider your business a valued customer, favor it with privileges, and make it easier for you to obtain future financing.

Enter with a Silver Platter

Lending is the essence of the banking business and making mutually beneficial loans is as important to the success of the bank as it is to the small business. This means that understanding what information a loan officer seeks--and providing the evidence required to ease normal banking concerns--is the most effective approach to getting what is needed.

A sound loan proposal should contain information that expands on the following points:

  • What is the specific purpose of the loan?
  • Exactly how much money is required?
  • What is the exact source of repayment for the loan?
  • What evidence is available to substantiate the assumptions that the expected source of repayment is reliable?
  • What alternative source of repayment is available if management's plans fail?
  • What business or personal assets, or both, are available to collateralize the loan?
  • What evidence is available to substantiate the competence and ability of the management team?

Even a brief examination of these points suggests the need for you to do your homework before making a loan request because an experienced loan officer will ask probing questions about each of them. Failure to anticipate these questions or providing unacceptable answers is damaging evidence that you may not completely understand the business and/or are incapable of planning for your firm's needs.

Before you apply for a loan here's what you should do:

1. Write a Business Plan

To present you and your business in the best possible light, the loan request should be based on and accompanied by a complete business plan. This document is the single most important planning activity that you can perform. A business plan is more than a device for getting financing; it is the vehicle that makes you examine, evaluate, and plan for all aspects of your business. A business plan's existence proves to your banker that you are doing all the right activities. Once you've put the plan together, write a two-page executive summary. You'll need it if you are asked to send "a quick write-up."

2. Have an accountant prepare historical financial statements.

You can't talk about the future without accounting for your past. Internally generated statements are OK, but your bank wants the comfort of knowing an independent expert has verified the information. In addition, you must understand your statement and be able to explain how your operation works and how your finances stand up to industry norms and standards.

3. Line up references.

Your banker may want to talk to your suppliers, customers, potential partners or your team of professionals, among others. When a loan officer asks for permission to contact references, promptly answer with names and numbers; don't leave him or her waiting for a week.

Walking into a bank and talking to a loan officer will always be something of a stressful situation. You're exposing yourself to the possibility of rejection, scrutiny, and perhaps even criticism of your business. Preparation for, and thorough understanding of this evaluation process, is essential to minimize the stressful variables and optimize your potential to qualify for the funding you seek.

Keep in mind that many times a company fails to qualify for a loan not because of a real flaw, but because of a perceived flaw that was improperly addressed or misrepresented. Finally, don't be shy about calling your accountant with questions; their experience and invaluable advice will be able to best prepare you for working with your bank.

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