Cindy Carrillo spent 18 months building a relationship with her business banker, educating him about her business and convincing him to take the onerous personal guarantee off her business credit line.
Then her Colorado bank, Bank of Louisville, was bought twice in one year, and her original business banker left for a competing independent bank that is opening new branches in town.
Now Ms. Carrillo is thinking about leaving too.
"As a small-business owner, I purposely went to a local bank," she said. "I really felt like I had a banker, and that's sort of changing."
According to a recent study of small-business owners, 17% change banks after a merger, and Ms. Carrillo's story illustrates why - and why the banking industry continues to get a bad rap from its customers as it consolidates.
Dean Boyd, Louisville-area president for Fargo, N.D.-based Community First Bankshares, which bought Bank of Louisville, said his company is trying to ease the switch to new ownership. He predicted that customer turnover would be limited.
"A lot of customers will put up with a lot of difficulties before they will move to another bank," Mr. Boyd said. "Changing banks and doing all that paperwork takes a lot of effort."
But Ms. Carrillo's business has changed since she first applied for a bank loan, and she doesn't feel she has to settle for whatever terms the bank sets.
Her company, the Work Options Group, now has eight employees, annual sales of more than $300,000, and three years' worth of documents showing steady financial growth.
"I have all the things bankers look for," she said.
And the banking environment has changed. Four years ago, Louisville had two banks. Now the town of 18,000 has six, including the independent Lafayette State Bank and subsidiaries of Banc One Corp. and Norwest Corp.
When Ms. Carrillo founded the business, she had almost as much trouble explaining what it would do as she did convincing a local banker to lend it money.
Work Options pools companies in the Denver and Boulder areas that by themselves could not afford day care for their employees' children or elder care for elderly relatives.
In the last six years, Work Options has organized six groups of companies with offices close to one another and combined work forces of 5,000.
Starting out, Ms. Carrillo chose to use credit lines, guaranteed with her personal assets, rather than term loans because she had irregular expenses and wanted a flexible repayment plan.
Once she had set up the first group of companies and could explain how the arrangement worked, Ms. Carrillo's business began to take off.
"I knew we were about to jump," she recalled, "but I didn't know if we could do it without an extra infusion of capital every now and then."
Ms. Carrillo talked to a venture capitalist who was willing to invest, but she felt that giving up control of the business was too high a price.
Despite this growth, Ms. Carrillo said, she plans to continue using bank credit lines. But she may not stick with Community First. "Because the nature of the bank has changed, I will shop around," she said.
That's good news for the other banks in town, said Douglas Drohman, Bank One vice president and business manager for Boulder County.
Bank One, which entered the market though an acquisition in 1991, now looks at new mergers as opportunities to gain customers, he said.
"We tell them Bank One is a big organization, one of the biggest in the country, and we are going to be here in the long run," Mr. Drohman said.
But Robert Beauprez, president of Lafayette State Bank, sees an even greater opportunity for his bank. It hired six bankers from the former Bank of Louisville and has increased its assets by 35%, to $71 million, in the last year, he said.
"Part of that is due to the changes at Bank of Louisville and our success at pirating customers away from them," he said. "It's not a mass exodus over there, but we've seen a pretty steady flow of customers."