A pair of California community banks have adopted a "Money Store" strategy to take their Small Business Administration lending nationwide.

Bank of Commerce and Imperial Bancorp opened SBA-loan-production offices in Oregon and plan to expand to other states where they will have no depository relationships.

By adopting this unconventional strategy, the banks are trying to beat the nonbank lenders at their own game. However, the increase in SBA loans these expansions promise could strain the federal agency's limited resources.

Imperial Bank, which is based in Los Angeles and has $3.3 billion of assets, recently opened SBA-loan offices in Arizona, Nevada, and Washington.

What's more, Imperial will expand its SBA lending to Salt Lake City, Denver, Dallas, Boston, and Miami within six months, said Garry Barnes, senior vice president and small-business manager.

"Our objective is to become a national SBA lender," Mr. Barnes said.

The expansion plans would give the community bank more than three times as many SBA-loan-production offices as branches - of which it has just three.

San Diego-based Bank of Commerce, the largest bank SBA lender in the nation, will open an SBA loan center in Seattle in April and another in Denver by July.

"We're looking at all good markets to get into, but our focus has been on the western states," said David Bartram, Bank of Commerce senior executive vice president.

Mr. Bartram said his bank will go head-to-head with Money Store and Heller First Capital Corp., two large nonbank lenders that make SBA loans nationwide.

"Really we are more of a nonbank lender outside of San Diego County, because we don't have branches or deposit relationships anywhere else," Mr. Bartram said.

Most SBA loans are long-term loans, for as much as $1 million. They are often used to finance commercial real estate or equipment purchases.

Like the nonbank lenders that fund their loans by securitizing their SBA loans, Imperial Bancorp sells the guaranteed portions of its SBA loan to generate more capital.

"Nonbank lenders are continuing to carve out their share of market," Mr. Barnes said.

But expanding through SBA lending isn't a strategy just for niche lenders or community banks, BankAmerica Corp. and Salt Lake City-based Zions Bancorp. have opened SBA offices lending offices in far-flung cities where they have no branches.

The growth in SBA lenders leads some of them to worry about the limited resources of the federal agency. But Jane Butler, the SBA's acting associate administrator for financial assistance, said the demand is unlikely to outstrip the supply.

"There is a limited number of small businesses in the country, and a limited number that need financing, and an even smaller number that would qualify for SBA financing," Ms. Butler said.

The SBA guarantees as much as 90% of each loan using money allocated by Congress, which in 1995 temporarily limited loans to a maximum of $500,000 so the SBA wouldn't run out of money.

For the 1997 fiscal year, which ends in October, the SBA uses $158 million to leverage the partial guarantee of $7.8 billion of loans made through its flagship 7(a) loan program.

Last year Bank of Commerce ranked as the largest bank lender, behind the top three nonbank lenders, under the 7(a) program, with 350 loans that totaled $141 million.

In comparison, the largest SBA lender, Money Store, lent more than $714 million in through the SBA's 7(a) program last year, according to the SBA's figures.

"The SBA tries to be prepared for growth in the program," Ms. Butler said. "If we had growth in excess of what we anticipated, it would be something we would deal with at that time."

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