After transforming BankAmerica Corp. into a formidable small-business lender in the West, Jerry L. Bowman is turning his sights eastward.
Mr. Bowman, executive vice president in charge of the business banking division, wants to make the San Francisco company's presence felt across the country by the end of next year.
Building on a base of a million small-business customers in California and other Western states, BankAmerica should be giving competitors something to worry about.
"We see ourselves today as a very good business bank in the states we do business in," said Mr. Bowman, a 32-year BankAmerica veteran. "In the near future we want to be a very good business bank across the United States."
If successful, BankAmerica's expansion would culminate four years of effort by Mr. Bowman to building the small-business division from the ground up, making it a respected part of the company, a market leader and innovator.
A competitor in Sacramento, First Commerce Bank, has felt the impact of Mr. Bowman's actions.
"Bank of America has become much more active in the past 15 to 18 months," said James Culleton, president of the $160 million-asset community bank. "They're out in the street and you hear about them making offers."
Going national is a natural next step in BankAmerica's evolution.
"Moving across the country allows us to geographically diversify our portfolio and extend the name Bank of America," Mr. Bowman said.
The nation's third-largest banking company will invade new marketplaces on different fronts, he said. "There are multiple ways of doing this," he said. "I'm not willing to throw everything at one area."
BankAmerica's options include soliciting through direct mail; teaming up with affinity groups; selling products through thrift branches that the holding company plans to open in new states; and working through other BankAmerica subsidiaries.
Mr. Bowman declined to say how far along the plans are, but said they are past the discussion stage. The eastward march will begin in 12 to 18 months.
BankAmerica has been busy in its current markets, announcing April 1 that it would lend $10 billion to small businesses in 10 states over the next three years.
As part of its push, Bank of America in California announced it would call on 100,000 small businesses - 10% of the state's market - in a two- week sales drive. It actually reached 156,000 businesses.
"We really got the message out," Mr. Bowman said.
Even before the $10 billion initiative the division had been a beehive of activity. In January it rolled out credit-scored loan products that cut down dramatically on paperwork. Most loans of up to $50,000 now require only that the entrepreneur fill out a one-page form similar to a credit card application; documentation requirements for loans between $50,000 and $100,000 also were streamlined.
"We try to simplify everything we can," Mr. Bowman said.
In February, the bank introduced relationship-based pricing on loans.
The pace isn't slowing down.
Next month BankAmerica will mail out preapproved applications for a small-business credit card to customers and prospects in California, Nevada, and Arizona. In June the bank will offer a small-business checking account that can be accessed only by automated teller machine.
"It's all electronic with a very low fee," he said. "It's a real good beginning account for people who have real minimal accounts."
BankAmerica's plans aren't limited to enhancing its product line. In the third quarter it will go live with a processing system that will incorporate credit scoring and relationship evaluation functions now split between two systems. The new system also will be able to interface with other data bases.
The upshot: BankAmerica will be able to process more loan applications faster; during its recent promotion it handled up to 1,000 a day, Mr. Bowman said. Moreover, the bank will be able to install an automated loan- by-phone system, add pricing options, allow remote access, and incorporate its own credit scorecard
Further, the system will let BankAmerica increase the size of its credit-scored loan products. It could raise the cap on loans without documentation to $100,000 and the one on loans with minimal paperwork to $250,000.
"It will upgrade everything," Mr. Bowman said of the system.
The bank has been developing the system and scorecard since last year. Mr. Bowman declined to disclose the cost of all this research and development, but conceded it was expensive.
Mr. Bowman said the unit was able to get the resources it needed by virtue of its status in the company. The business banking division is independent, with Mr. Bowman reporting directly to vice chairman Luke Helms.
"People underestimate the power of organization," he said. "Where you are in the organization tells you what you'll get. I don't have to go through different layers; I go to the decision makers."
This structure differs from that at most other banks, which put responsibility for small business under either a commercial or retail banking organization. Small business can get lost in the shuffle, Mr. Bowman said.
BankAmerica made small business autonomous during its 1992 merger with Security Pacific Corp. The combined banks owned a market-leading 30% share of small-business deposits in California.
"We were good-sized, but nobody was running the business," Mr. Bowman said.
Mr. Bowman said he was tapped because he had experience on the retail and commercial sides of the business and also had decades of experience with the company.
"I'd been in the company and I knew who to talk to and how to get things through and I don't take no for an answer," he said.
Once it was started, the business banking division completely overhauled products and underwriting standards, Mr. Bowman said. In its first two years, the division also closely analyzed its business costs.
"We know our cost structure," he said. "We know the nitty gritty of the business."
Increased use of automation and cost reduction has pushed up the unit's profitability, Mr. Bowman said.
"Our return is in excess of 25% when you take the total relationship," he said.
With the bank's senior management apparently sold on the value of the small-business segment, Mr. Bowman has tried to get the branch network - which handles most small-business customers - to buy in as well.
Educating the bank's sales force was a key reason behind the $10 billion loan program.
"We're such a big bank that our people concentrate on what they see and hear right in front of them," he said. "We used the promotion to say that small business is as important as everything else we do."