growing businesses by 13% to 15% a year while cutting costs nationally, the new head of its national business lending unit said. Keeping with its major cost-cutting strategy announced earlier this year, the Columbus, Ohio-based company promoted Ronald C. Baldwin, who headed its Wisconsin subsidiary, to oversee small-business lending across the bank's 11-state market. Mr. Baldwin said in an interview that he would seek to make the unit more efficient while forming a companywide loan policy for small businesses. Mr. Baldwin, formerly chairman of Banc One Wisconsin Corp., said there are opportunities on a national level to retool lending to small and growing businesses even though banks have traditionally used very personalized, local approaches to attract such customers in the past. "We're trying to continue the process of streamlining administrative issues, and give better market strategies to our sales forces," said Mr. Baldwin, who will remain based in Milwaukee. Banc One plans to standardize its credit processing and documentation, and package its loan products for a national market, rather than for local markets. The plan is part of Banc One's "national partnership," a strategy to unify its previously autonomous 61 banks. Banc One, with $88.4 billion in assets, has 300,000 business customers that fit into the small or rapidly growing business category. Loans to that segment haven't been growing at the same rate - 15% - as Banc One's overall assets, Mr. Baldwin said. He would like to change that. Small business loans are a staple for any bank's diet, he added. "This is a very attractive market segment for all banks," Mr. Baldwin said. "It's the bread and butter on which Banc One has built its business." The problem with Banc One's previous strategy of allowing local banks to decide their own lending programs, Mr. Baldwin said, was that it occupied too much of their time. "Our local bank representatives have a full plate already. They have a lot of arrows in their quivers." And, Mr. Baldwin believes a unified underwriting policy can speed the loan time. He insisted local bank presidents will still be responsible for drumming up business, though he expects the banks to be relieved of some of the administrative headaches. "We're going to be providing them with better tools with which they can compete," Mr. Baldwin said. "Obviously, bank presidents continue to be the frontline people." But James M. Schutz, senior banking analyst for Chicago Corp., said that Banc One presidents will likely lose autonomy as a result of the company's overall streamlining strategy. "It used to be Banc One would buy a bank, leave the management in place, give them ROA targets and let them go," Mr. Schutz said. "Under the previous strategy, all presidents would go out and sell their products to small businesses." Mr. Baldwin said Banc One presidents will still go out and sell business, but the products will be determined by the company's new national unit. Joseph Stieven of Stifel, Nicolaus & Co., St. Louis, said taking some of the administrative duties away from the bank presidents could improve the process. "You have to try to streamline operations," Mr. Stieven said. "Otherwise banks are going to have their (heads) handed to them. I think (the presidents) will have less functions, but I think most of those functions are not productive." Analysts have generally praised Banc One's cost-cutting strategy, and early results indicate the move toward greater centralization is working. In the third quarter, Banc One reported that earnings jumped 17% to $331 million.
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