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Citi exec works to improve small business status

Jerome Byers, head of Citigroup's small business banking operations, is working to change the impression that the company caters to just big corporate and international clients. AP Photo.

Jerome Byers, head of Citigroup’s small business banking operations, is working to change the impression that the company caters to just big corporate and international clients. AP Photo.

When small business owners hear the name Citigroup, they’re more likely to think of a bank that caters to big corporate and international clients, not one that will serve their needs.

Jerome Byers, head of Citi’s small business banking operations — and a former small business owner himself — is trying to change that impression.

“We have to tell our story better,” he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

Citi hasn’t let small business owners know how much the bank can do for them, said Byers, who has been in his current role since June of last year. Under his leadership, the bank has increased its lending to small companies in the past year by 21 percent to $9.6 billion.

Byers came to Citi in 2009 from Wells Fargo & Co., a bank that does have a reputation as a small business lender. In the second quarter, Wells Fargo was the top provider of small business loans, with $456 million. Citi was No. 32, with $27 million. Wells also has more branches, 9,000 compared with Citi’s 1,000, making it more visible and accessible to many small businesses.

Byers once owned a hair salon, so he has seen the small business-banker relationship from both sides. Here are some excerpts from his interview with the AP, edited for clarity and brevity:

Q. There is a perception that Citi isn’t a small business banker. How do you correct that impression?

A. In the small business area, we need to show the value that Citi brings. We know how to lend money. We have talented bankers. We need to tell our story better.

I think it’s fair to say that based on our branch network here in the U.S., we’re not going to be in every city and town. We have to accept that. We need to be the best small business adviser in the cities that we’re in — the major cities that we’re in.

We have a 1,000-branch network in the United States that last year lent $7.9 billion to small business owners. That’s a great story. There are 260,000-plus customers in that network. We need to talk a little bit more about that. We have some raving fans and owners. The best way to tell your story is to create more raving fans and let them be your promoter.

That (previous) reputation was earned, probably from customers who didn’t get what they needed at some point.

Q. How do you get this done when Citi has been cutting staff? (Citigroup had 253,000 employees as of June 30, down from 261,000 a year earlier).

A. If you ask small business owners who is the person they most like to deal with, they’ll say, the branch manager. I have 1,000 branch managers plus 2,000 or 3,000 salespeople who can talk to small business owners. There are some small businesses that are growing and need more sophisticated advice. I took probably the best 100 or so small business bankers I had, and continued to invest in their training to provide that advice.

Q. What can small business customers get from Citi that they won’t get elsewhere?

A. We can connect small business owners in 150 of the largest cities in the world. We also have behind us the most talented and probably most revered investment banks in the world and we can leverage those resources. In the categories of trade and cash management, we are probably unique to small business owners. If I brought it down to a local market, you have a local branch person that has the knowledge, again from the most powerful and dynamic financial institutions in the world. Our next step is to bring our technology enhancements down to small businesses.

Q. What is Citi doing to increase the number of loans to small businesses?

A. You’ve got to look for ways to help get capital into the system. So while we have bankers out on street, we’re also working through our foundation and other partners to go to areas and say, let’s figure out unique ways to do micro lending, let’s figure out unique ways to work with veterans, to jumpstart companies. You’ve got to look for niches in the segment where there’s opportunity to lend. But they need a little bit extra from their banker or their partner.

In this economy, small business banking isn’t just the lending, it’s doing the things you can do to provide seed money, to give advice to jumpstart the smallest of small businesses, to help small businesses to become medium-sized businesses, to become big businesses.

Q. What do your bankers do to help a small business when it’s turned down for a loan?

A. I don’t use the words “turned down.” What a banker should be saying to a business owner is, “here’s what we need to do to be able to lend you the money and help you grow.” Before we say, “we can’t lend you the money now,” we’ll see if there are alternative ways to finance — alternatives like Small Business Administration loans — and see if there’s a way we can partner with SBA to give that money. If that doesn’t work, then it becomes an advice discussion — let us advise you on what your business needs to look like to expand the way you’d like to. I don’t like to use “turn down” as much as I like to use “advice.”

Q. What is your take on the state of small business today?

A. Slowly we’ve seen their confidence in the economy come back. I would say now that primarily they are confident that the economy is going to grow in the next few years. And they’re starting to act in that entrepreneurial spirit.

At the same time, we’re in a period of evolution, from a global standpoint and a technology standpoint. The world is shrinking and the competitive landscape, even for small businesses, is becoming more clouded by globalization and the technology advances. I think the way that small businesses have to think is changing.

Q. So, you’ve been a small business owner yourself. What was that like?

A. I owned a barber and beauty salon and it was a very interesting learning experience for me. When I was in college, I was a barber, so I bought something I knew. I didn’t cut hair in the salon, I just owned it. As a banker, I understood the balance sheet and the income statement. As an owner, truthfully, I rarely looked at the balance sheet and the income statement, because I spent my time on customers and employees.



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