The last bank left standing for small businesses

As other major players fell away, Wells Fargo has remained a stalwart, increasing its lending this year through SBA programs.

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By Catherine Clifford, CNNMoney.com staff reporter

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Jennifer Braun and her husband both quit their corporate jobs to work full time running Festivities, an event-planning business they bought this summer with a loan from Wells Fargo.
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Decorations for a baby shower by Festivities, based out of Medina, Minn.
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With bank lending to small businesses nearly frozen, these 8 entrepreneurs are among the thousands fighting for the credit lines and loans they need to keep their companies alive.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The landscape of lenders willing to work with small business owners has changed dramatically in the last year, but one bank -- Wells Fargo -- has emerged stronger than ever.

While other financiers that were historically major players took a knee, Wells Fargo (WFC, Fortune 500) increased its lending, emerging as the new number-one lender through the Small Business Administration's loan programs.

CIT Group (CIT, Fortune 500), JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500), Banco Popular of North America and others that once held top spots have cut their SBA lending by more than 70% this year. Meanwhile, Wells Fargo upped its loan volume 4%, from $583.4 million in 2008 to $605 million this year.

Some of that gain may be fueled by Wells Fargo's late-2008 acquisition of Wachovia, another bank that traditionally made many SBA-backed small business loans. The acquisition closed three months into the 2009 fiscal year (which the SBA began Oct. 1), leading Wachovia and Wells Fargo to report their loans separately through part of the year.

Taken together, the two banks lent $742.3 million this year -- down 24% from what they collectively lent as independent banks last year, but still far more than any other bank put into the small business market. The next runner-up, U.S. Bank (USB, Fortune 500), made $249.5 million in loans through the SBA's flagship lending program.

Given the retraction of a number of key lenders, Wells Fargo's leap to the top is not a major surprise. "I don't see anything shocking with Wells Fargo being number one," says Bob Coleman, editor of the Coleman Report, which monitors small business lending trends.

What Wells Fargo did right: Wells Fargo's ascendance isn't solely due to its competition's collapse. The bank made two key strategic decisions that turned into major advantages.

First, Wells Fargo doesn't resell its loans on the secondary market, where many banks unload bundles of the SBA-backed loans that they've made. That market froze last fall after Lehman Brothers' collapse, leaving many banks unable to find buyers for their loans -- and without those sales, the banks lacked the capital to make new small business loans.

Second, Wells Fargo focuses on making traditional 7(a) loans, which can total as much as $2 million each. The Small Business Administration guarantees a portion of its 7(a) loans -- if the business owner defaults, the government pays the bank back for the insured portion.

But the SBA also offers a variety of "Express" loan programs, which involve lower loan amounts, lower government guarantees, and less paperwork. Because banks scrutinize those loans less, they're more prone to go bad when the economy gets rough.

Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500), in particular, has been hit hard on that front. The bank made 3,296 SBA loans last year, making it the fourth most-active SBA lender based on the number of loans made. But most of those loans were Express loans, with an average loan size of just over $31,000 each.

And many have begun defaulting. A year ago, CEO Ken Lewis called his bank's small business loan portfolio a "damn disaster." Bank of America reacted by sharply pulling back on its SBA lending. So far this year, the bank has made just 303 loans, 269 of which were Express loans.

"Wells Fargo is more of a traditional 7(a) lender. Their loans are larger and there is collateral behind them," says industry observer Coleman. "They do a more extensive underwriting analysis than the SBA Express lenders, which makes them feel more comfortable in assuming risk. For some lenders, the model is broken for those smaller Express markets, and so they have backed out of the market."

The new lending scene: Tom Burke, Wells Fargo's senior vice president of SBA lending, sees his bank's new leading role on the lending scene as a validation of what it has been doing all along. While Wells Fargo never before held the number-one spot, it has routinely been in the top two or three.

"We have been consistent. Our portfolio performs consistently," Burke says. "We always said that we are a player in the market. It is part of our DNA to help our small business customers."

Wells Fargo plans to press its advantage. "We are increasing staff to take advantage of gaps in the marketplace," Burke says. "We saw weakness in our competitors, and we decided to take advantage of what was going on in the marketplace."

One new small business owner is grateful that Wells Fargo is still actively lending. Jennifer Braun obtained an SBA loan from Wells Fargo in June to purchase a five-year old event-planning business called Festivities. Located in Medina, Minn., just outside of Minneapolis, the small business has seven fulltime staffers and a handful of part-timers who work weekends to cover events.

Previously employed at an event-planning firm, Braun knew it was risky to change careers in a recession: "All along, I kept thinking this is the worst time to quit my high-paying corporate job, as the primary breadwinner in our house."

But her doubts didn't stop her from following her instincts. "I just kept having the gut [feeling] that this was the time to act," she says. "You see a trend in downturns that a lot of companies are looking for mergers or consolidations, and that just seemed like something that I needed to capture -- to get a great business at a great price, because everyone is so scared, they are not moving forward on it."

Braun started her research by Googling "How do I get a business loan?" and ended up being directed to Wells Fargo by a broker. Both Braun and her husband quit their jobs and currently devote all of their energy to growing Festivities. She's optimistic that the economy is on the rebound: "I have had a strong belief in next year," she says.

Without the loan from Wells Fargo, Braun wouldn't have been able to take the entrepreneurial leap. "I would still be working at my corporate job," she says. "It would have been a dead dream for now."

The future: Next week, the government wraps up its 2009 fiscal year, and the SBA numbers are likely to be grim. To try to revive the market, Congress allocated funds in February's Recovery Act to temporarily eliminate fees for SBA loans and increase to up to 90% the percentage of the loan that is insured against default.

Those moves have had some effect: "If you look in terms of all the government programs that are out there -- increasing that 7(a) guarantee to the bank has made the greatest impact to getting money to Main Street, in my opinion," says Coleman.

"This is a good time to be making SBA loans," Wells Fargo's Burke says of the added incentives.

Even with the stimulus cash, the number of 7(a) loans made this year is on track to drop 38% from last year, to just over 40,000 loans. The total amount lent is also down sharply: Though mid-September, loans totaled $8.7 billion, down 28% from the same time last year.

But Wells Fargo, at least, expects its coffers to remain open to small business borrowers.

"We are in it for the long term," Burke says. "We would love to continue to be the top SBA performer." To top of page

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