Community banks may be missing an opportunity to advise small-business customers that are selling their companies or transferring ownership, according to a new study by the consulting firm Greenwich Associates.

Researchers found that 66% of small businesses with revenues of $10 million to $500 million expect to sell out or transfer ownership within 10 years, and one-third plan to do so in the next five years. The firm reported that most small businesses turn to their accountants or lawyers — not their bankers — for advice about selling, even when their bank relationships are more intimate.

The study, which covers a range of issues affecting small-business owners, is to be released this month.

Jim Geiger, the owner of Mechanical Systems Inc. in North Carolina, was one of 21,000 small-business owners surveyed by the Greenwich, Conn., firm. As with many, Mr. Geiger said he did not think to seek advice from his banker when he decided to transfer ownership of his business to his son five years ago.

“I went to my lawyer and my accountant, and we put together a transfer package that we are implementing over the next 12 years,” Mr. Geiger said.

Few small banks have the staff or expertise to guide customers through an ownership transfer, said Peter Garrison, a managing director at Greenwich Associates. But if they developed that expertise, he said, they could benefit by charging advisory fees as well as by managing small-business owners’ profits from the sale of their companies.

“For many banks with this capability, there is a clear opportunity to educate potential clients,” said Mr. Garrison. “For other banks there is a strategic opportunity to develop these skills or form alliances with those that” have them.

Virginia Berkeley, the president of Colorado Business Bank in Denver, said she agrees with the study’s conclusion that most small banks have failed to build on lending or deposit relationships by offering advice.

Colorado Business Bank, however, got its chance in July when its parent, $833 million-asset CoBiz Inc., bought the boutique investment banking firm Green, Manning and Bunch. Before it acquired the firm, CoBiz referred business to the investment bank. Now, Ms. Berkeley said, it can keep the business for itself.

“A good bank always addresses transfer of ownership,” she said. “They refer companies to investment banks. But we want to be in the loop — we don’t want to give away that business, we want to capture it.”

Merchants Bank of New York president and chief executive officer James Lawrence said his bank offers both in-house counseling and referrals for small businesses looking to sell or transfer ownership. The bank, a subsidiary of $7.8 billion-asset Valley National Bancorp of Wayne, N.J., does not charge fees for its own advice because it considers this part of a “total banking relationship” with its small-business customers.

“We are not only a confidante but an adviser,” said Mr. Lawrence, “and we handle this issue ourselves, assuming they have a borrowing relationship with the bank.”

Mr. Lawrence acknowledged that banks must be cautious when finding a buyer for a small-business customer. There is, after all, the chance that the bank could lose that customer forever. “We are looking to play both offense and defense at the same time,” he said. “We don’t push [customers] into someone else’s arms.”

Other banks say that though they do advise small businesses at the end of their life cycles, they are hesitant to fully take on a company sale or ownership transfer.

“We can address banking and financial needs, but we don’t provide them with the advice and expertise they need to sell the business,” said Mary Ann Pankau, the senior vice president of commercial banking $1.3 billion-asset Busey Bank in Urbana, Ill. “Tax consequences are a major issue when a privately owned company is transferring ownership or selling — and that is not what we are here for. That is a liability.”

Busey Bank will refer customers to an accountant or a lawyer, though for most businesses such relationships are already in place, Ms. Pankau said.

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