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Sam's Club tests small business loans

By Catherine Clifford, staff reporter


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Sam's Club, the members-only wholesaler owned by Wal-Mart, is testing out an online program to offer discounted loans to its small business customers.

The program is essentially a white-label arrangement with Superior Financial Group, the nation's most active Small Business Administration lender. Superior Financial, based in Walnut Creek, Calif., specializes in loans of $5,000 and $25,000, often made through the SBA's "express" program for smaller loans.

By applying for the loan through Sam's Club as a member, small businesses will get $100 off Superior Financial's loan packaging fee (typically $350 to $450, after the discount) and 0.25% off the market interest rate. Sam's Club gets a $50 referral fee for each loan funded.

The new Sam Club's venture launches amid a bleak credit landscape for small companies. Banks have slashed their lending portfolios and credit lines, leaving many companies scrambling to find the capital they need to operate. "Unable to find credit, many small businesses have had to shut their doors, and some of the survivors are still struggling to find adequate financing," a recent government study concluded.

That's one motive for Sam's Club to wade into the lending market: If customers are strapped for cash, they don't shop.

Small businesses "are a big portion of our business, so if we can help small business, that helps us," said Hiren Patel, director of financial services at Sam's Club.

Rival wholesaler Costco has tried three times to pair up with small business lenders. "The results have been underwhelming in each iteration," said Joel Benoliel, senior vice president at Costco (COST, Fortune 500). Costco linked up with Key Bank in 2000, American Express in 2003 and Capital One 2007.

"The assumption is that there is this big need, and we are all about small business as our members, so we have really, really tried over the past decade," Benoliel said. "In each case, the main problem was the same: we had low member approval rates."

Businesses that already have an established relationship with their bank tend to apply for loans with that bank. Those looking to apply for a loan through an alternate avenue aren't typically the most attractive customers.

"Maybe they will have success where we didn't," Benoliel said of the new Sam's Club venture. "The lending environment is entirely different since the last time we tried this in 2007."

The Sam's Club arrangement is an open-ended pilot program. "We will monitor on a monthly basis, report back to our executives on a quarterly basis, and see where we want to go with this," Patel said. To top of page

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