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Wells Fargo leader helps small businesses get loans

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Monday, July 29, 2013 - 12:01 am

NEW YORK – When Lisa Stevens speaks about her role as head of small business banking at Wells Fargo & Co., she focuses more on how she can help her customers rather than how she can grow the bank's loan portfolio.

Wells Fargo is already one of the country's biggest lenders to small business. Over the past 10 years, it has made more Small Business Administration-backed loans than any other bank, with a total of $8.5 billion. But Stevens is aware that her customers also include those who can't qualify for a loan.

“It's about getting a plan and helping people to set up and establish goals and move forward,” says Stevens, who has led Wells Fargo's small business banking operations for two years.

Stevens recently spoke with The Associated Press about her job and small businesses. Here are excerpts, edited for brevity and clarity:

Q. What's your take on the state of small businesses and their recovery from the recession?

A. It's been very broad, with positive trends and we've seen it regionally and across major industries. In regions like California and Florida and Arizona and the industries that were significantly impacted by the recession, we've seen the most improvement. We saw a really good increase in loans. For the first half, we saw year-over-year a 25 percent increase in our small business lending.

We know that over 20 percent of small businesses are in industries that are directly impacted by what happens in the overall real estate market. Construction, interior design, architectural services, landscaping, the list goes on. But we think there would also be a much larger impact on all small businesses from an improvement in the real estate market. Consumer spending is helped by the recovery in home prices. So theoretically, we would expect to see a significant improvement in overall small business financial health just from the improving real estate market.

We also think there's a lag effect from business owners being cautious and holding off on hiring until they see a tangible change in demand for their products and services.

Q. Has Wells Fargo added more bankers to work with small-business owners?

A. We've added between June of 2012 and June of this year about 1,900 bankers, and we have a total of 32,000 bankers across the country that are able to help small- business customers.

Q. How does a major bank like Wells Fargo win over small-business owners who might believe they'd be better off working with a smaller bank?

A. In the second quarter, lending on our Business Direct credit cards, lines of credit and loan products that are primarily under $100,000 were up 55 percent.

These are for the small mom-and-pop startup businesses that are maybe opening their doors or are just starting to expand with that new employee, or maybe a new piece of equipment.

Being the No. 1 small business lender for 10 years gives us some credibility in any community. In every single community where you have a branch location, across the entire nation, there's someone in those branches, in those communities that can help small businesses be successful.

With small-business customers, so much of it is about the relationshipYou've got to figure out what your business plan is, what you're going to do. Then, over time, we have to figure out what we need to do as a banker to help you understand how you can be successful.

Q. What do your bankers do when a small business doesn't qualify for a loan?

A. We've invested over $95 million in 108 microfinance small-business lending organizations since 1998. That's an important way to sometimes get help for people who can't work with the traditional financial institution at the start.

Q. If you were to start a small business, what would it be?

A. My husband and I have always had this idea that someday, we're going to go to Italy to a cooking school in Florence, where you go for four weeks and they teach you, then come back to California and go to Napa Valley or Sonoma area and open a very small trattoria, live in a mobile home and blow money on a restaurant. It would be really small, with 10 tables, and have good food and good wine.