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INTERMEDIARIES CAN HELP BANKERS, SMALL BUSINESS WORK TOGETHER

Did you hear the one about the six bankers?

It's not a joke. It's an honest-to-goodness true story, complete with a happy ending - at least for one of the bankers, said Victor Irizarry , new market specialist for the U.S. Small Business Administration in Orlando, Fla.

Irizarry met with the six bankers soon after he came to town. He offered a suggestion: If you run across small manufacturers that are promising but not quite ready for loans, refer them to the Florida Manufacturing Technology Center.

The center is what is known as a small-business intermediary. It assists manufacturers in preparing business plans, fixing production problems and doing whatever is necessary to help them meet a banker's criteria.

Before getting to the end of the story, it's important to understand why Irizarry had the meeting in the first place.

Irizarry has been with the SBA a little more than six months. He has years of experience in other areas, as an engineer, a lawyer and in government as a contract manager for the Department of Defense.

His hiring illustrates the importance the SBA puts on Central Florida: The government agency, which has offices in Jacksonville and Miami, hasn't had a full-time representative in Orlando in well over a decade.

Irizarry is here to cultivate businesses, both snazzy dot-com companies and equally important low-tech firms. Primarily, that means putting entrepreneurs in touch with money.

"I'm here to help increase financing," said Irizarry , whose office is at the Greater Seminole County Chamber of Commerce in Altamonte Springs.

SBA statistics show small-business lending has increased. The government agency, which guarantees up to 80 percent of bank loans, reports its lending in Florida has risen 82 percent in five years to $525.2 million.

That surpasses the national growth rate of 24 percent in the same period.

But Irizarry wants more; he's a real Mr. Show Me the Money. Lots of people move to Florida and open businesses. Bankers are well- intentioned, he said, but they may ignore possibilities, erroneously thinking "small business" is synonymous with "high risk."

That's where intermediaries come in. The manufacturing center is one of a number of groups in Orlando that can help bankers and small businesses come to terms.

About six weeks ago, Irizarry invited a number of intermediaries to the Seminole Chamber to give presentations - again, to local bankers.

The manufacturing center was there, as were others, including the Small Business Development Center, Central Florida Business Incubation Center, Minority/Women Business Alliance and the Hispanic Business Initiative Fund.

Representatives of each group explained what they could offer small businesses, be it putting together a business plan, forecasting market size and revenue or, in some instances, pre-qualifying businesses for SBA loans. They invited bankers to get in touch with them and send businesses their way.

"I have businesses who need money and you people have the money. Why don't we get the two together?" asked Carmen Manzonelli, business development manager of the manufacturing center.

Feedback after the event has been good. There has been a flurry of follow-up phone calls and e-mail.

But time will tell how many of the bankers actually make use of the intermediaries and, in turn, increase their portfolios with small- business loans.

Now, back to that original story. Remember those other bankers, the group of six Irizarry met months ago?

Well, only one of them ever took Irizarry 's advice and called the manufacturing center. And that bank is now working with several small manufacturers - having negotiated about $4 million in loans.

In working the manufacturing center, the bank realized that the small businesses needed just a little bit of help, and then they could easily qualify for loans.

That's good news for everybody involved: The small business is benefitting and so is the bank, which is making money from new clients.

That's just the sort of happy ending any business wants.

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