Comerica Bank California is using the buddy system to reel in small businesses.

The subsidiary of Detroit-based Comerica Corp. commands 14 two-person teams - a seller and lender - that prowl for prospects and whose members work so closely together that they have joint business cards.

This approach, combining aggressive selling with relationship banking, was developed two years ago to differentiate the $4 billion-asset unit from its gargantuan competitors in California.

"Our customers know from the outset that they're going to have two contacts at the bank," said Valerie J. Nicoletti, first vice president of community business banking for the San Jose-based subsidiary.

Under the system, a Comerica salesperson will make a pitch to a business with annual revenues of $5 million or less in the bank's target market of . If the bid succeeds, the salesperson calls on a loan officer to hammer out the credit arrangement.

The salesperson can call on other expertise at the bank, depending on what sort of relationship the small-business owner wants, Ms. Nicoletti said.

As proof of the program's effectiveness, Ms. Nicoletti points to 30% growth in Comerica's small-business loan portfolio in 1995 - more than double the growth rate in 1994, when Comerica did not have a sales force.

"The team-selling approach certainly is a major contributor to that growth," she said, adding all the growth is new business, not business acquired through mergers.

Ms. Nicoletti joined Comerica in May 1994 from San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co., where she was a business team manager. She raided her former employer later that year when she created Comerica's sales force, taking five employees from Wells.

"The folks from Wells Fargo were a lean, mean, energetic team," Ms. Nicoletti said. "The relationship piece wasn't at Wells and I wanted to bring that to Comerica. The people from Wells were people who wanted that piece and missed that piece."

Some other team members, who receive a base salary plus incentives, were picked from banks that Comerica has merged with, including Los Angeles- based MetroBank.

The teams have suffered no turnover since the program started, Ms. Nicoletti said.

Comerica's approach to small business even wins effusive praise from a San Jose-based rival.

"When we run into Comerica we find they're very professional and very aggressive," said John Rossell, chief executive of $140 million-asset Heritage Bank of Commerce. "They're very receptive to their customers, they're aggressive in price, and they're aggressive in structure. We have a lot of respect for them."

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