Even in unconventional California, Color Me Santa stands out.

This tiny home-based company tucked away in the Santa Cruz Mountains is the perfect small business for a town whose residents pride themselves on being - well, different.

Color Me Santa's marquis product is a black Father Christmas doll dressed in African-American garb.

"We don't call them Santas, because they're not in red suits," explained co-owner Annie Moussette.

Whatever their name, the success of the cold-cast porcelain collector dolls probably would not have been possible without Coast Commercial Bank.

The county's only locally based commercial bank, Coast Commercial succeeds in an area that might grind up a more traditional lender, for the only common thread running through Santa Cruz is the uncommon.

Many think of scenic Santa Cruz, 90 miles down the coast from San Francisco, as a throwback to the Summer of Love. It's a favorite haunt of former hippies; tie-dyed clothing, sandals, and aging Volkswagen buses are as abundant as seagulls and fog.

One of the few places left in America where cafe patrons argue that Fidel Castro is a success story, this town of 55,000 almost revels in its anti-business reputation. One of Santa Cruz's better-known organizations, Food Not Bombs, for example, regularly takes to the downtown streets demonstrating against everything from capitalism to welfare reform.

No place for a banker, especially one with a strong emphasis on SBA lending, right? Wrong. Amidst the taxation, social engineering, and regulation that have hamstrung many local businesses, Coast Commercial Bank has thrived.

The $215 million institution consistently posts record profits, and it is preparing to be listed on Nasdaq. Coast Commercial, which made more than $1 million in the second quarter, 55% more than in 1995's, is the biggest SBA lender in Northern California.

"Back when this bank started, profit was a dirty word," chief executive Harvey Nickelson said. "That's changed somewhat, but it's still an unusual area."

Santa Cruz County is home to about 250,000 people - and seemingly as many businesses. A well-educated citizenry has contributed to the large number of start-ups and other small businesses that dot the landscape.

All this makes for the antithesis of cookie-cutter banking. Ninety-five percent the county's businesses have revenues of $5 million or less, so it is an ideal market for a small-business lender.

Not until 1988, when small-business paperwork had been streamlined, did Coast Commercial move into the SBA lending market. It has since embraced the specialty.

SBA customers include CodeMaster Cascade, which creates medical record software; Bill's Wheels, a skate shop; and Cycle Imagery, a Santa Cruz motorcycle shop.

"We really don't differentiate between different types of business," said Satinder Kanwar, vice president and SBA loan officer. "Our lending is all based on credit and what kind of business they're projecting. Over the years, you get a feeling if something's going to work or not."

Coast Commercial's profits suggest that its intuition has been on target. Return on assets for the second quarter was 1.97%, and return on equity was 20%, both well above peer averages.

The bank was started in the early 1980s by a group of businessmen who felt they were getting short shrift from the out-of-town banks that dominated the region.

Their original intention was to build a business bank. It soon became obvious, though, that survival required more diversity. By the end of the decade, Coast Commercial had begun to branch into a variety of niches as it sought to provide an array of services for customers.

In 1989 a watershed event for the bank and the community occurred - the massive Loma Prieta earthquake, which registered 7.1 on the Richter scale, all but destroyed Santa Cruz's downtown outdoor mall, and brought city life to a halt.

The untested Coast Commercial was there to help with reconstruction.

The bank helped finance new construction and the retrofitting of existing structures. It also reached out in less typical ways.

For example, the Rev. Michael A. Marini said, the bank helped fund a new steeple to replace the damaged one at his Holy Cross Church in Santa Cruz.

It's all part of a plan that sets the bank apart from its superregional competitors.

"We offer a real alternative for people who want relationship banking," Mr. Nickelson said. "We appeal to small and medium-size businesses who need to have a dialogue with their banker."

Ms. Moussette said she and her partner, Rick Bastine, went to Coast Commercial because they saw television advertising touting its role in the community. They were so impressed that they didn't bother to look elsewhere when seeking an SBA loan to expand their four-and-a-half-year-old company's operation.

Coast officials "saw that our product could go somewhere," she said. "I think they saw us making it.

"It was nice to find someone who was willing to take a chance on us."

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