Two years ago Bank of New Hampshire decided to become the state's No. 1 small-business lender.

By one measure at least, it succeeded last year. A big reason, executives say, is that small-business banking was made a branch-manager responsibility, and the managers were given intensive training on how to get this business.

In a program that began at the start of 1999, the managers of each of the 80 branches got hours of training on small-business sales technique. One exercise was to make presentations before a video camera and analyze the tapes.

Then the managers were given a year's worth of sales contacts - and told that they were expected to make 20 in-person presentations a month.

"You want them out on the pavement," says Mark Collins, an executive vice president who heads small-business services at the $4.6 billion-asset Manchester subsidiary of Portland, Maine's Banknorth Group. "The last thing you want to have is branch managers on the phone."

Bank of New Hampshire said it wrote 324% more, by dollar volume, of $250,000-and-under business loans in the last three quarters of 1999 than in the preceding 10 months.

Federal Reserve data also show a jump, at least for the number of business loans of less than $100,000. The bank led the state last year, with 874, versus 500 for rival FleetBoston Financial Corp. and 421 for Citizens Financial Group of Providence, R.I.

Such success has led Banknorth to start rolling out a similar strategy in the rest of the states it serves - Maine, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont. The company says it can capture 2% or 3% of the region's small-business market.

"We think the way to win at small-business is to make it a retail function," Mr. Collins says. The best people to ensure that small-business customers get responsive, personal service are branch managers, he says.

Scott Bacon, Bank of New Hampshire's president, says emphasizing the retail nature of small-business lending puts it in the lap of branch managers, where it belongs.

Another reason that is logical, he says, is that commercial lenders would rather handle bigger, more profitable loans.

"They don't want the $100,000 loans," Mr. Bacon says. "So we decided, 'Let's have them make the bigger deals and free them up for that type of business.' "

James M. Ackor, an analyst at Tucker Anthony Cleary Gull in Portland, says this strategy gives community banks an edge.

"The people who run these small businesses go to the bank on a regular business and require a high level of service," Mr. Ackor says. "At the end of the day, it really boils down to service."

One part of Bank of New Hampshire's program is to help attract customers; another is to meant to help keep them.

To make sure customers can get 24-hour-a-day service, all the branch managers are required to wear beepers all the time.

That's not exactly a radical innovation in New Hampshire. William Henson, chief credit officer at Granite State Bankshares in Keene, says his loan officers have been carrying beepers and cell phones for five years. "It's just a logical use of technology."

Mr. Bacon said he was doubtful about making it a requirement - he didn't want to deny his branch managers a personal life. But he ultimately came around.

"If a customer does need to get in touch with someone," he says, "our people are available."

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