The nation's largest private employer could soon be banking with some of the country's smallest banks.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., with $104.8 billion in annual sales and 700,000 U.S. employees, has been extended a line of credit by a consortium of minority-owned banks. Under the deal, announced Monday, 38 banks will team up to extend Wal-Mart a revolving $72.5 million line of credit that the retail giant can tap into to finance such things as expansions or store improvements.

Wal-Mart treasurer Terri Bertschy said the company is obligated by rating agencies to have backup lines of credit should problems arise with primary lenders.

Also, she said, "we are always looking at ways to expand our business relationships with minority-owned businesses to reflect our diverse base of customers" and employees. "This seemed like a good fit."

The deal and the consortium were assembled by Gateway National Bank, a $23 million-asset bank headquartered in St. Louis.

Isaac Darden, senior loan officer at Gateway, said participating banks will commit funds according to their size. And though some will obviously contribute more than others, he noted that few if any minority-owned banks are large enough to work on their own with a company as large as Wal-Mart.

"This gives us the ability to participate in larger deals we would not normally do," Mr. Darden said. He added that Gateway's legal lending limit is $350,000.

The 38 banks in the consortium are based in 19 states and the District of Columbia. But to tap the line of credit, Wal-Mart will need to contact only Gateway, which will then collect the funds from participating banks. Gateway will also pay them it receives loan payments from Wal-Mart.

What if Wal-Mart never taps into the line of credit?

The participating banks will still receive a facility fee for providing the commitment, said Wal-Mart's Ms. Bertschy.

It's not unusual for small banks to team up to reach out to Fortune 500 companies. For example, Gateway partners with other minority banks through their national trade group, the National Bankers Association, to offer loans and services to such companies as Sears, Roebuck and Co., Anheuser- Busch Co., and May Co.

The line of credit extended to Wal-Mart, which is based in Bentonville, Ark., is the largest ever by a minority bank consortium, according to Gateway president Sharnia "Tab" Buford.

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