More than 200 bankers assembled at a hotel here this week to learn more about tapping one of their industry's few growth opportunities - the small-business lending market.

Those attending the first small business banking conference hosted by the American Banker and Robert Morris Associates ranged from neophytes taking their first steps into the market to old hands wanting a better understanding of specialized topics such as automated lending.

"It's the marketplace we're all trying to attack," said Gary D. Pett, senior vice president at Harris Bankcorp, Chicago.

"Small business is just really a hot market right now," agreed Cheryl Black, vice president at SunTrust Banks Inc., Atlanta. "We all want to find the best approach to serving it."

Conference chairman Michael D. Chagares, a McLean, Va., consultant, said the meeting - which began Wednesday evening and concludes today - was designed to address what banks must do to succeed in small-business marketing.

John McKinley, a former chief operating officer of Bank South Corp., gave a keynote address that focused on the importance of instituting a sales culture and encouraging cooperation among executives.

Other speakers were to address sales strategies, nonbank competitors, and credit risk. But those at the conference said more than a little learning took place in hallway conversations.

One of those attending, Michael McManus, chief executive of $3 billion- asset New York Bancorp, said he came to the Second City to get out of the "ivory tower."

"By coming to a place like this," he said, "I can talk to people who have already been successful. This way, I can steal a great idea rather than think one up."

An executive from a California institution who asked not to be named said small-business bankers typically go to the same conferences during the year and can keep tabs on what's working and what's not.

"We keep each other honest," the executive said.

Institutions both large and small were represented. For instance, Richard A. Szabat, vice president at $420 million-asset First National Bank of Rochester, N.Y., said he showed up because he wanted to learn ways to compete with the big boys.

"We're a small bank, but we're doing a lot of things, and we came here to get more ideas," Mr. Szabat said.

Last month, the bank equipped its salespeople with laptop computers and sent them out on calls three days a week.

"It's a big market," he said.

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