NEW YORK – When Lisa Stevens speaks about her role as head of small-business banking at Wells Fargo & Co., she focuses more on how she can help her customers rather than how she can grow the bank’s loan portfolio.
Wells Fargo is already one of the country’s biggest lenders to small business. Over the past 10 years, it has made more Small Business Administration-backed loans than any other bank, with a total of $8.5 billion. But Stevens is aware that her customers also include those who can’t qualify for a loan.
It’s about getting a plan and helping people to set up and establish goals and move forward, says Stevens, who has led Wells Fargo’s small-business banking operations for two years.
Stevens, who volunteers with groups including the National Boys & Girls Club of America, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, says she learned when she was growing up that it’s important to help others. She says that contributes to her focus on helping small businesses, or as she puts it, making a difference with the bank’s customers.
Stevens recently spoke with The Associated Press about her job and small businesses. Here are excerpts, edited for brevity and clarity:
Q. What’s your take on the state of small businesses and their recovery from the recession?
A. It’s been very broad, with positive trends and we’ve seen it regionally and across major industries. In regions like California and Florida and Arizona and the industries that were significantly impacted by the recession, we’ve seen the most improvement. We saw a really good increase in loans. For the first half, we saw year-over-year a 25 percent increase in our small business lending.
Q. Has Wells Fargo added more bankers to work with small-business owners?
A. We’ve added between June of 2012 and June of this year about 1,900 bankers, and we have a total of 32,000 bankers across the country that are able to help small-business customers and that are trained to help and serve their financial needs.
Q. How does a major bank like Wells Fargo win over small-business owners who might believe they’d be better off working with a smaller bank?
A. In the second quarter, lending on our Business Direct credit cards, lines of credit and loan products that are primarily under $100,000 were up 55 percent. These are for the small mom-and-pop startup businesses that are maybe opening their doors or are just starting to expand with that new employee, or maybe a new piece of equipment.
Being the No. 1 small-business lender for 10 years gives us some credibility in any community. In every single community where you have a branch location, across the entire nation, there’s someone in those branches, in those communities that can help small-businesses be successful.
With small-business customers, so much of it is about the relationship. You don’t all of a sudden say, I’m going to start a business and I’m going into a Wells Fargo branch and they’re going to give me a loan. You’ve got to figure out what your business plan is, what you’re going to do. Then, over time, we have to figure out what we need to do to help you understand how you can be successful.
Q. What do your bankers do when a small business doesn’t qualify for a loan? What can an owner expect Wells Fargo to do to help them get on the path toward being able to borrow?
A. We support community-based organizations and microlenders who can make those loans. We’ve invested over $95 million in 108 microfinance small-business lending organizations since 1998. That’s an important way to sometimes get help for people who can’t work with the traditional financial institution at the start.
The biggest thing is figuring out, what are the company’s goals, and what’s realistic? Part of the job is to say, how can we have your business grow without you leveraging yourself too much? What’s the step-by-step process so a year from now, two years from now, when you are ready to take out that loan, you’ve got the good credit score, you’ve got the stability of what’s been happening with the business.