Small-business owners aren't whipping out their credit cards as often these days.

Recent surveys show that the use of personal credit cards for business financing-long a mainstay for entrepreneurs who couldn't get a traditional bank loan-has fallen in recent years.

While entrepreneurs still heavily rely on plastic for start-up costs and small equipment purchases, traditional bankers are starting to welcome once untouchable commercial customers more readily. And the bankers are even taking on those who may have relied on their cards too much.

"We look at the cash flow-'Does this business have ability to repay and the intent to repay?'" said Raj Madan, director of marketing for business banking with Barnett Bank in Jacksonville, Fla. "Most of the time we view that potential borrower as an opportunity."

In a 1996 study by the National Federation for Women Business Owners, 23% of the 800 small-business owners surveyed said they used credit cards to finance their companies. The figure was 51% in 1994 and 52% in 1992.

In another survey, conducted last year by Dun & Bradstreet in Murray Hill, N.J., only 16% of 398 small-businesses owners said they used personal credit cards to help finance their businesses. The figure was 36% in a similar survey a year earlier.

Why the drop?

Small Business Administration officials and business advisers said it may reflect a new willingness among bankers to lend to small businesses. They said bank lenders from large and small banks have opened the commercial loan spigot to small businesses in recent years, recognizing the potential for growth in serving the sector.

But the downward trend in credit card use may also show that small- business owners don't need such financing as much as in the decade's early and less profitable years. A healthy economy may be giving businesspeople enough earnings to support their own growth.

But though banks are courting them more aggressively, some entrepreneurs still prefer using their credit cards to visiting the bank.

"If you're starting a business with a computer, fax, and a couple of telephones, it's much easier to go to CompUSA and get it today," said Bruce D. Phillips, director of the Small Business Administration's Office of Economic Research.

Larry Winters, vice president for small business services with Dun & Bradstreet, said owners more commonly reach for the plastic when a business begins growing.

But there are definitely pitfalls to credit card borrowing.

Vincent Castelluccio, owner of T&V Printing in Riverside, Calif., charged equipment purchases before his printing company could get a commercial loan. Now he uses credit cards for smaller purchases and to cover payroll before receivables are collected.

He has heard his accountant warn time and again not to finance business expenses with his personal credit cards. And he'd tell business owners exactly the same thing: As easy as plastic is to use, it is easy to lose control of.

Following that advice is another story. Mr. Castelluccio has more than $25,000 in business debt outstanding on several cards.

He expects eventually to consolidate his loans, perhaps in a line of credit he has with Bank of America, but is in no rush. By jumping from introductory offer to introductory offer, he said, he keeps his credit card interest averaging 11% to 12%, about the same as his commercial loan, and without a personal guarantee.

Although business advisers say putting business debt on personal credit cards is fraught with risk, surveys by various organizations and anecdotal evidence suggest that Mr. Castelluccio has plenty of company.

Financing long-term assets with short-term debt, especially at 18% or more, is unwise, business advisers say.

And personally guaranteeing a commercial loan is risky too, said Diahann Lassus, co-owner of Lassus Wherley & Associates, an accounting and financial planning firm in New Providence, N.J.

The firm once had more than $30,000 in debt on its owners' personal credit cards.

Ms. Lassus did not use her credit cards when she opened the firm, in 1985. But when expansion expenses started to exceed revenue, she started to charge away.

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