For years, Pablo Oliveira dreamed of buying a property to house his high-end linen and furniture rental company, Nuage Designs, which has created settings for such glamorous events as the weddings of Carrie Underwood and Chelsea Clinton.
A few months ago, that dream came true, when Oliveira purchased a warehouse across the street from his current Miami location. He is now renovating the loft-like space with the help of a $2.1 million, 25-year small business loan.
“It allows me to own my own space as opposed to renting, and that will decrease my costs for infrastructure and allow me to build equity with time,” said Oliveira, who secured a U.S. Small Business Administration-guaranteed loan from Wells Fargo.
For small businesses like Oliveira’s, a loan can be the critical key to growing a business, as well as the kindling to ignite an operation.
Take Harold Scott’s fledgling Great Scott Security, which manufactures window guards in Hollywood that can open quickly in case of need.
When he was 13, Scott’s stepfather perished in a Georgia house fire because he couldn’t escape through heavy window bars. Scott made it his mission to fix the problem.
“I promised myself I would dedicate all my time to working on a solution,” said Scott, 60.
Now retired from a 23-year career in the U.S. Justice Department, Scott recently secured a $7,500 microloan from Partners for Self Employment. He used it to buy a computer and pay for marketing and other business expenses for his quick-release window guards, which have met national, state and Miami-Dade County fire safety codes.
During the depths of the recession, business owners often griped that gaining access to capital was their biggest hurdle. Saddled with bad loans, many banks were wary of making new ones. At the same time, both the value of collateral and the creditworthiness of many borrowers tumbled.
Now, at last, banks are starting to open their pocketbooks again, experts say, though lending is still not on par with pre-recession levels.
“There is no question that small business borrowing declined as a result of the recession and has yet to recover to pre-crisis levels,” said Richard Brown, chief economist for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., via email. “According to the Federal Reserve, total loans to noncorporate businesses and farms stood at just under $3.8 trillion in September, which remains below the peak of about $4.1 trillion in the fourth quarter of 2008.”
Signs of Growth
In South Florida, more businesses are applying for loans and getting approvals from banks, according to lenders, officials at government agencies and leaders of organizations that help small business owners secure loans.
“Lenders are expressing a greater interest than they have in the past few years in terms of meeting the needs of the small business community,” said Marjorie Weber, Miami-Dade Chapter Chair of SCORE, which helps business owners put loan packages together and refers them to bankers.
Loan figures are indeed rising. During the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2012, SBA-guaranteed loans were up in both Miami-Dade and Broward counties, according to the SBA. In fiscal 2012, 449 loans were approved in Miami-Dade, totaling $213.3 million, up from 426 loans for $154.4 million in 2011. In Broward, 262 loans for $91.4 million were approved in fiscal 2012, compared to 257 loans for $102.4 million in 2011.
“We’re seeing some really good numbers this year — we’re up for the first quarter, both in loan numbers and dollars, over last year in our district,” said Jonel Hein, the SBA’s deputy district director, whose region includes 24 counties south of Orlando. “We find it as an indication that the recovery is still continuing. The more we see loans increasing, whether dollar amounts or the number of loans, it’s a positive sign for South Florida.”
Among the loans SBA guarantees are those for start-ups, equipment, commercial property and debt refinancing. About 75 percent of loans go to existing businesses, with the remainder going to start-ups of less than two years.
“There’s a lot we can do,” Hein said. “It’s whether the borrower can find a lender to say, ‘Yes.’ ”
Just watch kids jumping on wall-to-wall trampolines at Sky Zone Miami, an indoor trampoline park, for further evidence that the market is bouncing back.
Owner Juan Brandt got a $900,000 SBA-guaranteed loan at the end of July from Wells Fargo to fund the build-out and equipment for his new franchise, which opened in October in Doral.
Brandt said he contacted SCORE and was assigned an experienced accountant as a counselor, who helped him refine his business plan. SCORE also put him in touch with banks that were most active in SBA lending, including Wells Fargo.
Still, getting a loan is not for the faint of heart. Brandt said it took about four months to get his loan.
“Even having help from SCORE and having the right person at the bank, a terrific executive who believed in the concept and was willing to work with me, even so you have to jump through a lot of hurdles to get to closing,” Brandt said.
In Miami-Dade and Broward, as well as nationally, Wells Fargo ranked at the top of the list of SBA lenders last year, in terms of dollar volume.
“We have grown our resources in Florida, which we believe is an important state with a lot of small business owners who need financing,” said Hakim Kassam, Wells Fargo’s regional sales manager for the Southeast United States, based in Deerfield Beach.
The bank has four dedicated SBA lenders in South Florida — two in Miami-Dade, one in Broward and one in Palm Beach, he said, who work with about 70 relationship bankers who funnel them business. Two types of loans are most in demand: owner-occupied commercial real estate financing — like Nuage Designs’ — and business acquisition financing, Kassam said.
Chase Bank, which made the top of the list for SBA loans last year, in terms of loan volume, also has witnessed a rebound. Both applications and approvals are up, said Carlos Alzate, Chase’s market manager of business banking for Miami-Dade.
‘A tremendous increase’
“What I’ve seen in the last year was a tremendous increase in loan origination for small businesses,” he said. In South Florida, the bank has 141 business bankers and three SBA specialists.
“As we look at financial statements for small businesses, you definitely see the improvement — not only sales are starting to increase again, but the bottom lines are increasing. You see little by little that businesses that may have had a rough year in 2009 and 2010 are starting to come out of it.”
One bellwether of the economy is the hiring of temporary workers, and CAREERXCHANGE, a staffing company with offices in Miami-Dade and Broward, is seeing its business grow with the recovery, said Suzanne Hodes, vice president and chief financial officer and one of the firm’s principals.
As a result, CAREERXCHANGE needed a larger line of credit, which it got from Chase Bank.
The company pays the workers that it places on a weekly basis, so it needed a $2 million line of credit to bridge the gap of 30 to 60 days that it takes to be paid by its clients, Hodes said.
“We don’t use our line of credit for everyday operations,” she said. “We use it just for seasonal surges.”
Other banks are also increasing their focus on small business lending. In South Florida, banks like TD Bank and BankUnited also ranked high in loans last year. And Bank of America said it wants to boost its loans, recently hiring more than 1,000 small business bankers across the country, including about 50 in South Florida.
SunTrust Bank is also seeing an upward trend and has added to its SBA-dedicated staff.
“We definitely see companies that are more healed than they have been,” said Jeff Nager, SBA division executive for SunTrust Bank, in Raleigh, N.C. “We’re seeing an uptick in the quality of the applications, the quality and the stability of the businesses. So we’re seeing some positive momentum in South Florida.”
As a result of the growth, SunTrust added a third SBA business development officer in South Florida at the beginning of the year. In all, the bank has 61 business and commercial bankers in South Florida, including those focused on SBA lending.
“Borrowers — small businesses and large businesses — have been holding cash, and it was the right thing to do in these economic times,” Nager said. “They have worked through that, and it’s time to start expanding again.”
Yet credit problems still haunt many would-be borrowers, creating difficult hurdles to surmount. “There are so many people who have ruined their credit that they can’t even approach a bank,” Weber said, citing such events as foreclosures or failure to repay personal loans. “There isn’t anybody who can borrow without a personal guarantee. If you mess up your credit, even though your business is doing fine, your personal guarantee behind that loan is no good.”
Sometimes, all a company needs is a small loan to tide them over, and microlenders may do the trick.
Microlender Accion provides financial education to help small business owners put together financial documentation to get a bank loan and also offers microloans itself from as little as a $500 to a maximum of $50,000, said Fabiana Estrada, Miami team leader and loan consultant for Accion.
“We are more flexible regarding credit scores, and we can lend to someone who is home-based,” Estrada said. “If you make cheesecake at home, and you need a new oven, you go to your bank, but they say you have not been doing it for two years, so they call Accion to help the client.”
Other lenders include community-based non-profit organizations, such as Partners for Self Employment, which made a microloan to Great Scott Security. In 2012, the organization disbursed $330,000 across 67 businesses, said Cornell Crews Jr., program director. Its loans range from $1,000 to $7,500. In addition to loans, the organization provides training and technical assistance.
Miami Bayside Foundation makes loans to minority-owned businesses based in the city of Miami as long as they are able to create jobs.
During the last couple of months, Executive Director Kathleen Murphy said she has seen a rise in completed applications. Only one new loan was approved last year, in addition to increases to two existing loans.
But already this year, two new loans have been approved and are expected to close soon, and more are in the pipeline, she said. Funded by Bayside Marketplace, the nonprofit organization’s goal is to advance economic development in the city through the support of minority businesses and education.
Viking Defense, a security staffing company, was the company that secured a Miami Bayside Foundation loan in August — $50,000 to cover the time delay in getting paid on its contracts.
Owned by husband and wife Ricky and Annette Brantley and in business for four years, the Miami company started out with one contract and now has 16. Viking Defense has 36 employees and staffs apartment and condominium buildings, office buildings, warehouses and construction sites, 24 hours a day.
Ricky Brantley, Viking Defense’s president and chief executive, learned about Miami Bayside Foundation from Weber when he attended a SCORE seminar she gave on how to get financing and outlined Bayside Foundation’s criteria.
“I raised up my hand and said, ‘I have excellent credit, I have been in business four years, and I need some help,’” said Brantley, 55.
Weber told him to meet with her after class. She put him in contact with Murphy, and within about a month, he got his loan.
“Now I am able to bid on bigger contracts, especially from the county,” Brantley said. “It would have been a tremendous bind on me to make payroll, to know they don’t pay for 30, 45, 60 days. It really helps us out a lot.”