Richard G. Federman left an 18-year banking career six months ago to help wake up a sleepy nonbank small-business lender in Colorado.

Mr. Federman, a former lending and marketing executive for Citicorp and two other large East Coast institutions, has been working since February to instill a sales culture at Independence Commercial Finance and sharpen its marketing efforts.

"My vision is to build a national small-business-lending franchise," Mr. Federman said. "Small business doesn't get the attention it deserves and there is an opportunity for a company that is aggressive and very focused."

According to Mr. Federman, who after 13 years with Citi served stints at Anchor Bancorp and Midlantic Corp., the opportunity to steer the Aurora, Colo.-based company in that direction lured him away from banking.

"The challenge to build a national company really was compelling for me," he said.

Small-business bankers have been increasingly mobile in recent years. As a growing number of banks and nonbanks vie for the same business, they're increasingly competing for the same talent.

Mr. Federman said early results from his initiatives indicate progress at Independence. A unit of the privately held Harbourton Enterprises, Independence is on track to double its 1995 lending volume - most of it backed by the Small Business Administration - and triple its net profit.

But the company still has its work cut out. For instance, Independence has yet to appear on the radar screen of rival banks in Billings, Mont., one of its 10 markets.

"I haven't heard of them," said Steven L. Tostenrud, chief executive of First Citizens Bank of Billings. "We've got AT&T Capital and Money Store and a lot of other ones out here."

Mr. Federman wouldn't disclose how many loans Independence originated this year, but said it expects to would originate $100 million in loans next year and $200 million annually by 1999.

Mr. Federman also declined to discuss profit figures, except to say "we're highly profitable and our margins are better than those of a bank."

The company obtained SBA-lender status three years ago, although it initially didn't do much with its new powers, Mr. Federman said.

"We were lending, but at a much slower pace," Mr. Federman said.

One of the first things he did was introduce a marketing strategy that involved direct mail campaigns and telemarketing - techniques employed by a growing number of bank and nonbank lenders.

He also began recruiting a sales force, from both banks and nonbanks. He declined to say how many representatives are active in Independence's 10 urban markets, but said the company plans to establish a presence in more markets.

Besides Billings, markets where Independence is active are Dallas; Denver; Houston; San Antonio; Phoenix; Alexandria, Va.; Atlanta; Miami, and Jacksonville, Fla.

Mr. Federman said that in a positioning move designed to distinguish Independence from the competition, he selected commercial real estate lending as the company's primary niche.

Independence directs its marketing and sales efforts at companies in the suburbs or in small towns. The reason: Those merchants are wooed by fewer lenders than those in cities.

"We really target companies that are not in the middle of metropolitan areas," he said.

Mr. Federman professes respect for the banking industry in general and former employer Citicorp in particular. But he said that if banks want to succeed in small-business lending, they should take some cues from nonbanks.

"Banks need to realize the importance of listening to their customers and finding out what their needs are," he said.

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