BB&T Corp. of Winston-Salem, N.C., is taking its mandate as one of the top small-business lenders in the country very seriously.

The Small Business Administration chose BB&T in April as the most "small-business friendly" banking company of its size in the nation. And $31.5 billion-asset BB&T, as part of its marketing to small businesses, has begun offering a computer program that helps entrepreneurs decide whether they qualify for a loan.

The new product is one example of how the company tries to build relationships with small-business customers, said Lynn Harton, a senior vice president and small-business banking manager.

"When we look at small business, it's not just with some textbook finance approach," he said.

At last June 30, BB&T had $1.5 billion outstanding in 51,600 loans of less than $250,000, a 10% jump from the year earlier.

And the company is on track to increase annual growth in that category to 20% by the end of this month, Mr. Harton said, mostly fueled by BB&T's decentralized decision-making. The company's small-business lenders have authority to approve credits of up to several million dollars.

Bankers need to understand the local business community, Mr. Harton said. "If you are lending to a retail shop, you need to know what location it is in" and whether it is filled with people or failing, he added.

Even the way the company uses credit scoring is decentralized, Mr. Harton pointed out. BB&T's strategy is to keep credit scoring in the branches and out of the head office so that it becomes just one tool for assessing loan prospects, in conjunction with personal contact.

"Credit scoring can be used to help you identify the really good loans," Mr. Harton said.

In addition to pumping up its small-business loan volume, the bank hopes to attract more deposits from small companies with a relationship-based checking account to be introduced this fall.

The account is to charge lower fees by crediting toward a minimum balance all the bank products a small business uses.

Jere Glover, the SBA's chief counsel for advocacy, said what differentiates BB&T is its singular dedication. Of the bank holding companies with more than $10 billion of assets, "they clearly were the very best," he said. "Small business is more of a focus for them."

BB&T plans to devote the last three months of 1998 to promoting its small-business products as part of its regular quarterly business line campaigns.

Retail banking, investment products, and alternative delivery will each get their own quarterly promotions.

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