NEW YORK – When small-business owners hear the name Citigroup, theyre more likely to think of a bank that caters to big corporate and international clients, not one that will serve their needs.
Jerome Byers, head of Citis small-business banking operations – and a former small-business owner himself – is trying to change that impression.
We have to tell our story better, he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
Citi hasnt let small-business owners know how much the bank can do for them, said Byers, who has been in his current role since June of last year. Under his leadership, the bank has increased its lending to small companies in the past year by 21 percent to $9.6 billion.
Byers came to Citi in 2009 from Wells Fargo & Co., a bank that does have a reputation as a small business lender. In the second quarter, Wells Fargo was the top provider of small-business loans, with $456 million. Citi was No. 32, with $27 million. Wells also has more branches, 9,000 compared with Citis 1,000, making it more visible and accessible to many small businesses.
Byers once owned a hair salon, so he has seen the small-business-banker relationship from both sides. Here are some excerpts from his interview with the AP, edited for clarity and brevity:
Q. There is a perception that Citi isnt a small-business banker. How do you correct that impression?
A. I think its fair to say that based on our branch network here in the U.S., were not going to be in every city and town. We have to accept that. We need to be the best small business adviser in the cities that were in – the major cities that were in.
We have a 1,000-branch network in the United States that last year lent $7.9 billion to small business owners. Thats a great story. There are 260,000-plus customers in that network. We need to talk a little bit more about that. We have some raving fans and owners. The best way to tell your story is to create more raving fans and let them be your promoter.
Q. How do you get this done when Citi has been cutting staff? (Citigroup had 253,000 employees as of June 30, down from 261,000 a year earlier).
A. If you ask small-business owners who is the person they most like to deal with, theyll say, the branch manager. I have 1,000 branch managers plus 2,000 or 3,000 salespeople who can talk to small-business owners. There are some small businesses that are growing and need more sophisticated advice. I took probably the best 100 or so small-business bankers I had, and continued to invest in their training to provide that advice.
Q. What can small-business customers get from Citi that they wont get elsewhere?
A. We can connect small-business owners in 150 of the largest cities in the world. We also have behind us the most talented and probably most revered investment banks in the world and we can leverage those resources. In the categories of trade and cash management, we are probably unique to small-business owners.
Q. What is Citi doing to increase the number of loans to small businesses?
A. Youve got to look for ways to help get capital into the system. So while we have bankers out on street, were also working through our foundation and other partners to go to areas and say, lets figure out unique ways to do micro lending, lets figure out unique ways to work with veterans, to jump-start companies. Youve got to look for niches in the segment where theres opportunity to lend. But they need a little bit extra from their banker or their partner.
Q. What do your bankers do to help a small business when its turned down for a loan?
A. I dont use the words turned down. What a banker should be saying to a business owner is, heres what we need to do to be able to lend you the money and help you grow. Before we say, we cant lend you the money now, well see if there are alternative ways to finance – alternatives like Small Business Administration loans – and see if theres a way we can partner with SBA to give that money. If that doesnt work, then it becomes an advice discussion – let us advise you on what your business needs to look like to expand the way youd like to.