Tactically, you probably should take the initiative, but your bank may be a friendlier place than you think -- even when your business needs a loan.
You're not likely to score a business loan because you and a senior bank officer play golf every weekend -- or because you and a top commercial loan officer are on the same chamber committee.
Today, you're far more likely to get a business loan because the numbers say your business can repay the loan from cash flow. Getting their loan dollars back, on time, is extremely important to bankers.
Still, two bankers I talked lending with at Wheaton Bank & Trust Co., a Wintrust unit, make a sensible case for why and how to make friends with your banker.
The two are Mike Soehlke, who on March 30 closes out a notable banking career that began at Hinsdale Federal Savings and Loan Association in the '70s, and Cheri Armstrong, a vice president and commercial loan officer at Wheaton Bank & Trust.
Soehlke is vice president and branch manager at the bank -- and, I know from personal experience, a banker who understands how to match customers with bank programs.
The key to connecting at a bank -- which won't guarantee you a loan but will get you attention and support -- is to "come in and talk with a banker," Soehlke says. "Tell us who you are. Tell us about your business.
"Open a business checking account," he suggests. Personal bankers "are trained to explain the services we offer," so it shouldn't be too difficult to extend a checking conversation into other bank services that could fit your business.
Armstrong adds that it will help if you have a personal, or household, checking account at the bank. "Banks want to build full relationships with their customers," she says.
Actually getting to know a local banker isn't that difficult: Good bankers want to get to know you, too. That's a reason bankers such as Soehlke and Armstrong join chambers of commerce, downtown business groups and similar business-civic organizations: They're looking for you as much, or maybe more, as you're looking for them.
Most banks, whether giants or those that focus more on hometown communities, want contacts in the marketplace as much as you (potentially one of those contacts) want to know a banker. Ideally, "You'll know us before you come to the bank," Armstrong says.
If you're not into local organizations, where meeting a banker can be difficult to avoid, ask your accountant or business attorney to recommend a bank that fits your needs. Ask a business-owning friend for a referral to her banker. Those introductions should help establish the relationship you want.
Most banks have several small business loan options that may be worth exploring. Don't be too quick to turn up your nose if your new banker-friend suggests an SBA loan. Small Business Administration programs are better structured than they once were and can be interesting alternatives.
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