Nonbanks again dominate ranking of Small Business Administration lenders, with Money Store topping the list for the 15th consecutive year.

Units of AT&T Capital Corp. and Heller Financial Inc. held on to second and third place in fiscal 1997, according to nationwide lending figures the federal agency released last week.

Combined, the three largest SBA lenders accounted for $1.59 billion, or 17%, of the $9.5 billion in loans made through the 7(a) loan program for fiscal year 1997, according to SBA.

"All we do is make SBA loans so we are very focused and responsive to the customers' needs," said Joy Fauvre, marketing director for Heller's small business lending subsidiary in San Francisco.

"Banks focus on deposits and other accounts, and SBA loans are only a small part of what they do."

In fiscal year 1996, these three lenders made $1.2 billion, or 16%, of the $7.7 billion of SBA's 7(a) loans. SBA lending is a fragmented business with about 7,000 lenders, primarily banks, making 7(a) loans.

The SBA ranks 7(a) lending by individual offices, not parent companies. So the rank of banking companies that make loans through several subsidiaries is lower than if the agency combined the loans made by the institution.

San Diego-based Bank of Commerce was the largest bank lender for the third consecutive year, and ranked fourth for the second year in a row. Bank of Commerce made 367 loans under the program, worth $176 million. That is up from 350 loans worth $141.3 million in fiscal year 1996.

The largest nonbank lenders extend credit nationwide, but $372 million- asset Bank of Commerce lends in only six western states, through its 12 offices.

"We plan to catch the nonbank lenders and we're going do it by moving into other parts of the country," said David Bartram, senior executive vice president at Bank of Commerce. "We plan to narrow the gap."

But Heller, a subsidiary of Fuji Bank, Tokyo, added six lending offices last year for a total of 23 offices in 12 states, primarily in the West. The company plans to expand its offices in the Midwest and Southeast, according to Ms. Fauvre.

Banco Popular de Puerto Rico slipped two notches to seventh on the SBA's list with 350 loans worth $93 million. But Merv Schorr, vice president and director of SBA lending in the United States, said the SBA's figures short- change the bank because loans made in Puerto Rico are listed separately. "SBA lending is still a big priority," Mr. Schorr said. "We keep going into new markets where there is a big demand, and making more loans."

Mr. Schorr said Banco Popular, a subsidiary of Popular Inc. in San Juan, plans on making more loans through branches in Orlando, Houston, Los Angeles, and Chicago in the next year.

Compass Bancshares' Texas subsidiary, which did not rank among the top 25 in 1996, climbed to 14th on the SBA's list after it bought a community bank active in SBA lending. "We're very aggressive in market," said George Sherling, Compass Bancshares regional president for Dallas.

Comerica Inc.'s Texas subsidiary jumped to 10th, from 21th the previous year. Zions First National Bank in Utah dropped to 18th, from 11th.

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