Obama's Small Business Stimulus Loans--Are They Coming Our Way?
By: Sue Malone
As Americans we have experienced the full gamut of emotions after hearing TARP I handed 350 billion to big banks, but no money filtered through to small businesses in the form of loans. In fact, the spicket was turned off completely after receipt of the bailout money. But putting down the front page of our local newspaper for a moment, what is it like in the trenches? Are the banks really denying capital to businesses across the nation? And how are they treating them in this crisis. You'll be saddened to hear it is every bit as foreboding as you have heard, or even worse.
Mrs. Smith is the classic poster child of female entrepreneurial success. Starting as an everyday real estate agent, over the last 24 years, she has built an amazing corporate edifice consisting of several real estate sales branch offices and now employs 170 people. Her thriving business came as the result of untold hours of toil in which she describes herself as a "serial workaholic". As a result, she is considered one of most productive real estate offices in the state. Over the years, she had a strong relationship with a big bank and took out eight loans and lines of credit. All had been payback and were never late a single day. Her credit score is excellent and reports no negatives. Needless to say, as most businesses, she relies upon the line of credit to put her over the hump during times of lower cash flow. What happened next could not have been conjured up in your worst nightmare.
One afternoon on January 30, 2009, she received a call from her bank. In the past, she looked forward to receiving these calls because they were so energized and cooperative. They made her feel special. Her credit rating was so good, that twice she merely called up the bank manager, speaking to him by his first name, and was able to extend the line of credit by a simple verbal request. In those days, the conversations were something like: "Hello Mrs. Smith. I trust everything has been good with your business and family. How is your son John enjoying the college life? Sure--we'll be delighted to extend your credit line again and I will have one of my associates prepare the paperwork and get it over to you as soon as possible. Look to speaking with you soon." Today was different. Her CPA was in the office that afternoon picking up profit and loss sheets when the call came in. It was not the manager. It was someone at the bank she had never met.
"Is this Mrs. Smith? I am Frank Thompson with ABC Bank." He began with a twang that could only be described as consummate arrogance.
"Well hello. How are you today?" Mrs. Smith said cheerfully.
"Fine. Mrs. Smith, I assume you're busy so let me come right to the point. We have reviewed your loan accounts and effective immediately I am notifying you that they are being called and are now due and payable." It came to her in words that were abrupt and stinging. Although her heart skipped a beat, her first reaction was they must be calling the wrong person. She immediately motioned her CPA to get on the line.
"Hi. This is Mr. Evans, Mr. Smith's CPA. Would you be so kind as to repeat what you just told Mrs. Smith?"
Mr. Thompson was clearly agitated in having to repeat himself: "I'm really not accustomed to having to repeat myself, but I will tell you again. Mrs. Smith's $200,000 line of credit is canceled effective immediately and all sums are due and payable. Do I make myself clear?
"I'm sorry, we don't understand. Is there a problem with the account? To my knowledge Mrs. Smith has always paid her monthly installments on time and his current as we speak."
To say Mr. Thompson was rude was an understatement. Now he became even more bothered by the conversation: "It's clear you don't understand. I would suggest that you read the clear language of the loan agreement that gives us the option of doing so at any time with two weeks notice. I am giving you this notice now. Having said this in very simple language, I assume you have the basic intelligence to understand what I just said."
"Sorry, but we're just trying to be able to digest this news. This is very serious. We can't just pull out our checkbooks and a make a full payment on one day's notice . You don't have to be rude to us." Although still in shock, Mrs. Smith tried your best to soften the conversation.
Mr. Thompson was now eager to end the conversation. "Let me make it even clearer. Based on what I just told you, our bank no longer has a business relationship with you. You would be well advised to take steps to pay this account so that legal action is not necessary."
"Please understand that we need some time to think this through . . . I should . . . I mean I need to get a hold of the manager first," she pleaded.
"I'm handling the account now. You are not to talk to anyone else but me." The tone of of his voice was unmistakable and threatening.
At that point the conversation went steadily downhill. She and her CPA spent the rest of the day going over the books and speaking with their attorney.
Sound like something that cannot happen in America to a successful small business? Well, think again. These are exact quotes of the conversation. The big bank is simply stomping out big small businesses to improve their balance sheets. The lifesaver that has thrown to the big banks in the hopes they would pass it to small businesses on Main Street has simply not happened. It is at least understandable if a large bank decides not to make a new loan in this challenge economy. But it's another thing altogether to cancel existing loans with good customers.
Is this an isolated occurrence? Not all. Here is another example. Robert Picou is the President of the California manufacturing company known as California Ribbon and Carbon Co., Inc., with a plant located in Los Angeles. Robert is the epitome of the seasoned business owner, knowledgeable, practical, optimistic, and understandably proud of his company's heritage. After talking to him, you get the uncontrolled urge to get in the car and drive out to his plant. You get the image of a certain industrial vibrancy which is missing in America.
He should be proud. It is a story right out of the movies. In 1939, his father started selling old fashioned manual typewriter ribbons door to door to business owners in the Los Angeles area. But unlike Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman", he made it into a real success. 70 years later this closely held family corporation has continued to thrive. To manage the ruts along the way, twenty years ago he took out a business credit card with a well known company and secured a large credit line. Needless to say, he has paid it on time ever since. But then he got a sudden and unexpected surprise in the mail. The credit card company unilaterally cut his credit line and froze up this access to working capital.
He wasn't especially daunted by this news because after all, he had a longstanding relationship with his large bank. All we needed to do was call them up and ask for an extension of his line of credit. His bank did get $150,000,000 in TARP money to presumably free up the money. Ten years ago he owed them as much as $1.4 million, but because of the success of his business, was able to pay it down to $88,000. A perfect candidate to receive some of the bailout monies and create an even more positive cash flow for him and the neighboring economy. No problem, right? Wrong again.
With no explanation, his bank turned him down flat. Asking why, he has yet to receive a credible answer. With orders piling in, his company is now on the unenviable position of not being able to fund all the orders received. Not to mention the rippling effect it has on his suppliers and employees, all of which have a tangible stake in our troubled economy. It is apparent that large banks have no intention whatsoever of using bailout monies for the benefit of small businesses.
Now the good news. Smaller community banks are interested in your business through the vehicle know as an SBA guaranteed loan. These institutions are using the incentives given by the SBA guarantee to cut their risk of loss and build up a better portfolio to be sold on the secondary market. You just have to find the right bank. At least someone realizes the foundational strength small businesses give to the overall economy.