At community banks, small-business owners usually rank among the most valued customers.

But if one bank consultant's predictions are accurate, community bankers might want to push more of those customers into retirement.

James R. Devine, senior consultant at Moss Adams Advisory Services in Seattle, told bankers here that 25% to 35% of all small-business owners are over 55 years old. And as those owners near retirement, he said, they will seek guidance in selling their businesses and, subsequently, managing their newfound wealth.

"The time to identify (customers) who are transitioning is right now," Mr. Devine said at Robert Morris Associates' annual lending and credit risk conference. "I don't think you're going to see an opportunity like this for a long while."

The most obvious role a bank can play is financing the purchase of a customer's business.

Mr. Devine said most small-business owners prefer to sell their companies to family members or employees. The average small business is valued at $1 million to $5 million, so the typical buyer would need to finance at least 75% of the purchase price.

But he said banks should also get involved in the sale of a customer's business in less traditional ways. Long before the financing stage, they can provide advisory services such as determining a company's value or identifying a buyer. Or after a sale is completed, they can take an active role in managing that customer's money.

Mr. Devine recommended that bankers uncomfortable offering these services partner with money advisory or money management firms and split the fees.

Small banks appear well-positioned to handle small-business owners' needs. A recent survey conducted by the National Federation of Independent Business found that most small businesses, defined mainly as those with fewer than 40 employees, prefer to bank with institutions that have less than $1 billion of assets. The main reasons: Small banks better understand their businesses and can make decisions more quickly.

However, small banks may have to sell themselves a little better if they want to win their customers' advisory business.

The same survey found that advice is the least important factor in a small company's selection of a bank, said William Dunkelberg, chief economist for the National Federation of Independent Business.

"I don't know if you try to provide business advice to your customers,'' Mr. Dunkelberg told a group of bankers at the New Orleans conference, "but apparently they aren't looking for it."

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