Wells Fargo & Co. could be successful with its push to lend to Hispanic businesses, because much of that market is still untapped, rival bankers said at a recent small-business conference.

The San Francisco-based bank has established a $1 billion loan fund in an alliance with the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Wells plans to lend the money over six years and to mail prequalified loan applications to Latino business owners.

The program was announced Oct. 2, after a Wells study found that Latino business owners have subpar access to credit.

The study clearly indicates they "are not getting what they need from banks," said Jose E. Nine, vice president of Wells' business banking group. He spoke last week at the American Banker RMA Small Business Banking Conference in Atlanta.

Latino entrepreneurs in Arizona and the 10 metropolitan markets with the most Latino businesses were found to be more likely than non-Latino business owners never to have borrowed for their businesses.

"Any business owners that have been underserved are a good market," said Anne Slattery, senior vice president for Fleet Financial Group.

Wells will make unsecured loans of $5,000 to $100,000 to Latino entrepreneurs with profitable businesses, no bankruptcy in the last 10 years, and a business bank account.

Latinos are only one new small-business focus for Wells. Another is Canadians. Last month the company began mailing them applications for small-business credit lines of $10,900 to $54,500.

Robert J. Paterson, manager of retail and small-business lending for Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Toronto, said Wells' approach to Latino entrepreneurs in the United States looks promising, but its push in Canada has aroused resentment there.

Many business owners in Canada feel Americans have too much influence in their country, he said. Also, he said, they are reluctant to sign for loans governed by California laws.

Mr. Paterson said Wells is mailing loan applications to some of the most creditworthy businesses who would borrow from Canadian banks.

"They are trying to cherry-pick the best customers," he said, "But that won't work."

In the United States, Wells began a nationwide campaign of direct mail solicitation to small-business owners in mid-1994. By mid-1996 its business loan portfolio had grown 174%, to $3.9 billion. Only one U.S. bank's was larger.

"It's impressive to see what they have done in two years," Mr. Paterson of Toronto Dominion. "But we aren't worried about their approach yet."

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