In an attempt to become the No. 1 SBA lender in the New York region, Citibank is going all-out to attract small-business customers.

Last year the Citicorp unit lagged Chase Manhattan Corp. in the rankings. It had 199 loans, totaling $7.9 million, compared with Chase's 429 loans, totaling $25.5 million, according to the Small Business Administration.

Citibank's SBA program director, Doug Asofsky, said the small-business segment is very profitable.

As part of its campaign to win over small-business customers and retain current ones, Citibank held two recent seminars for customers. It has also been trying to further cement relationships with minority business groups.

Last year the bank invited 125 small-business owners to attend a similar seminar. Because of the new goals this year, the number invited to a recent event, co-sponsored with the SBA, was 500.

Citi is trying to persuade entrepreneurs "that we are the right bank," said Al Sofia, a bank vice president and sales director for mortgages and the business and professional unit.

The $330.4 billion-asset bank attracted a diverse crowd of small- business owners to its most recent seminar. The group included real estate agents, florists, computer consultants, a violin repairman, lawyers, accountants, and one inventor who plans to make fabric from flower petals.

But the entrepreneurs attending seemed mostly concerned with how Citicorp's pending merger with Travelers Group, announced last month, would affect the quality of branch service and availability of credit to small businesses.

"If you find one place to shop for banking and insurance, it could be good as long as they give you good service," said Ruth Bendersky, the owner of a Manhattan hair and beauty supply store. "When I go to the Citibank branch, it's so crazy and busy, and there is nobody I can talk to."

Werner Ritter, who owns an Upper East Side company that makes draperies, said he fears the recent wave of bank mergers will give a few banks too much control over the market and could lead to higher fees.

"The big banks have more services," he said, "but once they get all the business locked up, I have doubts about whether it will be good for consumers and small businesses."

Before the merger was announced, New York architect Anne Reilly Fahim moved most of her firm's money out of a Citibank business account and was considering closing it because she was unhappy with the branch service.

After the recent seminar, however, she seemed to be reconsidering. "Maybe I'll give them another chance," she said.

In an interview, Mr. Asofsky said the merger would not have a negative impact on small-business service. "We regard ourselves as community bankers with an obligation to lend in the community," he said.

Chase, which is the largest banking company, said it is not threatened by the increased attention Citibank is paying to the small-business market.

Chase "definitely wants to hold on to the No. 1 position," said Joseph Scharfenberger, executive vice president for commercial and professional banking.

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.