First Union Corp. sees so much potential in expanding its small-business clientele that by next month it will have finished retooling nearly 300 branches to focus more on those customers.
Detroit-based Comerica Inc. has recently opened six new Small Business Administration loan offices throughout the United States and looks to open more to increase SBA loan generation. It also will add eight new branches with a small-business emphasis in the next two years, as well as a small-business call center to improve service.
In Cleveland, National City is looking to more than a dozen new small-business products and services introduced last year and this year aimed at making small-business banking easier and more attractive. And for the last 18 months National City's 200 small-business banking officers have hit the street in pursuit of face time with existing and possible new customers.
Examples like these underscore the mounting importance large banks are placing on efforts to court small-business owners this year. The reason is simple, banking executives and industry observers say.
"Our small-business customers, on average, tend to be four to five times more profitable than our individual customers," said John D. Lewis, a vice chairman of Comerica who oversees the company's small-business efforts. In recent years Comerica has been increasing the generation of small-business loans by 13% to 14% annually and looks for that to continue.
"It's an excellent source of deposits and fee-based services," Mr. Lewis said of the bank's small-business lines, which make up about 10% of Comerica's net income. "One of the attractions to small business, beyond its inherent profitability, is that it fits so well with our strategy."
Dave Kaytes, a managing director at Novation Associates, a management consulting firm in New York, said wooing the small-business client this year is "a top-three priority at virtually every commercial bank." He said this year marks the biggest push among banks for those customers in recent memory.
"As banks begin to find that selling and servicing small-business accounts are 10 times more profitable than certain retail accounts, they've become very serious about those customers," he said. The prospect for increased profitability does not even include the potential of gaining the small business owners' personal banking, nor the possibility of selling them nontraditional banking products like insurance.
In the past, Mr. Kaytes said, big banks handled small-business customers much as they would big companies. Doing so proved to be too expensive, he said.
"Banks are starting to find ways to deal with small businesses in more efficient and cost-effective ways," he said. As those methods are refined, a growing number of banks are increasing their efforts.
"We believe that small business is one of our key areas of growth," Martha Hayes, a senior vice president and head of First Union's small-business banking division, said in a recent interview. The revamped small-business branches will, among other things, feature employees with increased training in the company's small-business offerings.
At National City, Michael Price, senior vice president, said convenience and ease for small business owners is crucial.
"I think it's an area where we've redoubled our efforts," said Mr. Price.