Peter Boland's business development efforts don't usually entail golf outings, Rotary Club lunches, or chamber of commerce dinners.

Instead, the Marine Midland Bank executive is more likely to spend his time dining on curries and rice pilafs to the strains of sitar music with Indian entrepreneurs in suits and saris.

Last November, Mr. Boland threw a two-week series of Hindu New Year parties throughout New York State to build ties to Indian-owned businesses, especially import-export firms.

"It's a great way of making a statement to the community," said Mr. Boland, a senior vice president in charge of trade finance for the Buffalo- based bank.

Increasingly, multi-national banks, such as Marine Midland's London- based parent, HSBC Group, and Union Bank of California's parent, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, are offering specialized trade services for ethnic small businesses in the United States.

And though their U.S. subsidiaries largely have the image of mainstream banks, their growing focus on ethnic and immigrant businesspeople is a recognition of the changing face of the country's small businesses.

More than half the American population will be nonwhite by the year 2050, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections.

The number of businesses owned by Asian-Americans increased 56% nationwide between 1987 and 1992-to 591,839-according to the most recent Census Bureau figures.

That means traditional lenders accustomed to doing business at the club will be forced to learn a new means of cultivating customer relationships.

Since Marine Midland formed its Asian business unit three years ago, the bank "cherry-picked" 85 of the largest Indian-owned import-export businesses away from other New York banks, Mr. Boland said. The bank has $225 million in used and unused lines of credit to Asian-owned businesses, he said.

Now the bank will promote its trade finance services to smaller Indian- owned businesses with annual sales ranging from $5 million to $10 million, Mr. Boland said.

The bank offers credit lines, letters of credit, document collection, and foreign exchange services; guarantees release of cargo; and provides credit information on potential trade partners.

"Indians are fantastic traders," Mr. Boland said "They are typically very frugal, high net-worth individuals, probably the most demanding customers a bank could ever get."

Mr. Boland said the bank promotes its services tailored to Indian, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan business owners at community cultural events and through groups like the Association of Indians in America.

The bank's parties get reviewed in the society pages of Indian-American newspapers next to stories about Indian art exhibits and beauty pageant winners.

Ashok Anan, senior vice president and manger of Bank of India's New York office, said that Chase Manhattan Corp. and Union Bank of California are best known for trade services for Indian-owned firms in the United States. But with its increasing social contacts in the Indian community and sponsorship of Indian New Year parties, Marine Midland may be on to something.

"It does help," Mr. Anan said of the parties. "I would think of it more as a social party rather than a marketing effort."

Marine Midland has plenty of competition in its efforts to serve ethnic entrepreneurs in New York City, said Charles Hamm, president and chief executive of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Independence Savings Bank.

"If you are not in the ethnic communities, it's hard to say you are doing a good job covering New York," Mr. Hamm said.

But Mr. Boland said Marine Midland has an advantage over other New York banks because its staff is specifically trained to evaluate the creditworthiness of import-export firms owned by Indians.

The import-export businesses tend to be thinly capitalized and highly leveraged, and their balance sheets might cause other banks to reject their credit applications.

So Mr. Boland trains his staff to look at a business owner's personal history, relationships with suppliers, volume of purchase orders and interactions with factoring companies.

"We're selling our ability to understand our customers' trade cycle and structure a line of credit based on their needs," Mr. Boland said.

Indian entrepreneurs usually have a lag time of 30 to 45 days between placing an order with an overseas supplier and receiving payment from a domestic customer, whereas Western businesses would allow 90 days.

Mr. Boland, an Australian who spent two years working in Calcutta and 10 in Hong Kong, said his staff also needs to understand the customer's business culture.

Indian entrepreneurs tend to be very demanding, he said, often calling their banker several times a day, but if satisfied will use multiple banking products and be extremely loyal customers.

"If they have a problem, they will tell you," Mr. Boland said. "But a customer who had a problem solved is more loyal to their bank than a customer that never had a problem at all."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.