The Voice of Main Street – Small Businesses Share Their Experience With Non-bank Finance
If she hadn’t scored the $250,000 loan through Breakout Capital in 2015, Jackie Luo says, the commercial-software firm she heads in Baltimore could not have made the “strategic hires” and purchased the new server to support additional customers and maintain the company’s 30% growth rate.
“Without that infusion of capital” from the McLean (Va.)-based lender, says Luo, chief executive at E-ISG Asset Intelligence, the software solutions provider would have been hard-pressed to deploy the “bandwidth and capacity” necessary to meet burgeoning demand.
And demand there is. Luo says billing for her company’s services helping more than 100 businesses and government agencies improve operational efficiency by keeping tabs on multiple assets — human, financial and equipment — topped $1.5 million last year, up from $1 million in 2015. This year, moreover, E-ISG is on track to collect nearly $2 million.
Meantime, she says, the $250,000, 10-year note at 6% interest she obtained with the help of Breakout was both a good deal and convenient: she reports securing the financing in three weeks, compared with the six months that a commercial bank would likely have taken. In addition, she’s been able to forge a better relationship with Breakout than with a faceless financial institution.
“We are a small business,” she says, “and we’d be just one in a million at a big bank like Wells Fargo. They wouldn’t give us much attention.” With Breakout, Luo adds: “I have the freedom to make decisions about infrastructure investments without worrying about the short-term. And I don’t have to deal with people second-guessing me.”
Had she not gotten the financing, moreover, “I would not be able to pay myself,” she says. “I’d have to use my salary as working capital.”
Luo is not alone. Her company’s story of finding much-needed capital from a nonbank financial company is increasingly common. It has always been challenging for small businesses to obtain credit from a big bank — roughly a financial institution larger than $10 billion in assets. But the small and community banks that have been the lifeblood for small businesses have also been winding down their small-business lending as well, according to a March, 2016, working paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
“As recently as 1997, small banks, with less than $10 billion in assets, accounted for 77% of the small business lending market share issued by commercial banks,” co-authors Julapa Jagtiani and Catharine Lemieux write in “Small Business Lending: Challenges and Opportunities for Community Banks.” However, the market share dropped to 43% in 2015 for small business loans with origination amounts less than $1 million held by depository institutions.
“The decline is even more severe for small business loans of less than $100,000,” they add, “where the market share for small banks under $10 billion declined from 82% in 1997 to only 29% in 2015.”
The Philadelphia Fed study notes that alternative nonbank lenders are filling a widening gap. “By using technology and unconventional underwriting techniques, many alternative lenders are competing for borrowers with offers of faster processing times, automatic applications, minimal demands for financial documents, and funding as soon as the same day.” And the Fed study finds that it’s likely that nonbank lenders, which are growing rapidly, are having a positive effect by “increasing the availability of credit, particularly to newer businesses that do not have the credit history required by traditional lenders.”
Meantime, the Small Business Administration reports that small businesses remain essential to the health of the U.S. economy. Businesses with fewer than 500 employees account for 55% of overall employment in the U.S., according to the agency, and are responsible for creating two out of every three net new jobs. Which means that alternative funding sources — which do not, it is worth noting, depend on depositors’ money, as banks do — are playing an increasingly important and largely unrecognized role in the country’s economic fortunes, notes Cornelius Hurley, a law professor at Boston University and executive director of the Online Lending Policy Institute. “They’re still a small percentage of the overall lending picture,” he says of nonbank financial companies, “but they’re an emerging force and a lot of small businesspeople certainly depend on them. If they disappeared tomorrow,” he adds, “a lot of businesses would be wiped out too.”
To find out what is happening in the real world, deBanked interviewed small business owners around the country: among others, a Houston sports medicine provider, a Connecticut restaurateur, a Midwestern truck hauler, and a Maryland hardware-store owner. Some recounted being shunned by banks because of poor credit while others registered unhappiness with traditional financial institutions as inconvenient and impersonal. While some who turned to alternative lenders admitted they would have preferred not to be paying dearly for borrowing or for cash advances, most said the tradeoff was worth it.
The existence of alternative lenders has made it possible for these businesspeople to meet payrolls, pay contractors and suppliers even when business was slow or billings stalled. Customers with alternative funders – in addition to Breakout’s customers, deBanked spoke to clients of Pearl Capital Business Funding and Merchants Advance Network– also reported that they were able to purchase or replace equipment and maintain inventory, hire additional employees and accept new customers, pay for upkeep and upgrades of their business’s physical plant, and make other expenditures necessary to keep operations up-and-running.
Jason, for example, who heads a family business in Louisiana manufacturing and selling pesticides (and who asked to be identified only by his first name), reports that his suppliers began demanding that he pay in advance for chemical feedstock after he took a “financial hit following a nasty divorce.”
The roughly $1 million (annual sales) business — which was started by his parents back in 1960 — furnishes chemicals mainly to cotton farmers and homeowners in Louisiana and Texas, most of whom purchase the company’s products through feed and hardware stores. Jason says he spends a substantial amount of time on the road handling sales and distribution.
His suppliers not only require him to pay for the chemicals upfront but, following his divorce, they now insist upon larger purchases as well. Following the departure of a previous lender, he says, Breakout stepped in with an $80,000, 12-month loan in March, 2016, which he was able to repay within six months. This was followed by a $60,000 borrowing in March, 2017, which he again paid down early – in 90 days, Jason says – and the account manager at Breakout “went to bat for me and gave me an additional discount for early payment.”
Had Breakout not provided external funding, Jason says, he would have been “wiped out.” He adds with feeling: “It would have meant the end of me.” And sinking the fortunes of the company would also have spelled job losses for five employees, including both his son, who works part-time, and his sister, the business’s co-manager. “Now I’m out of the hole,” he says.
In Houston, Anna, co-owner of a physical therapy and sports medicine concern, was interviewed in August just before Hurricane Harvey loomed on the horizon. “We’d been around for four years and growing rapidly,” she says, asking to be identified only by her first name, and “we couldn’t keep up with the growth.”
Anna recalls that a few years ago (she is vague about the exact dates) the company needed $50,000 to $60,000 to add equipment and staff to meet the growing demand. Because of some “ups and downs” in her business and credit history, however, a bank loan was out of the question. “My credit wasn’t the best,” Anna says, “and we had not been in business the five-to-seven years that most banks want.” She began casting about for financing and quickly saw that factoring would not be a suitable choice for a business like hers, which depends heavily on third-party payments from health insurance providers. “Companies using factoring are taking money based on credit card payments,” she says, “and we’re not a restaurant or a bar. So we can’t pay a percentage of every transaction.” Typically, she notes, getting paid by an insurance company involves a “90-day turnaround.”
Anna went online, did some research, and talked to three or four nonbank lenders searching for the “right kind of company.” That led her to Breakout. “What I really liked about them is that they did a lot of due diligence on our field,” she says. “They did their homework, asking us: ‘What are your collections and payroll? How much outstanding debt do you have?’ They also asked to see our actual bank statements.”
Despite the high level of due diligence that Breakout performed, Anna says, it only took “maybe three or four days” for the loan to be approved and for the money to land in her bank account. Before long, she was off to the races. With the added capital, she hired three more employees – bringing the employee headcount to 18 — purchased more gym equipment, made payroll, and paid off miscellaneous expenses.
The added capacity and fortified staff, meanwhile, enabled the company to “almost triple its volume,” the entrepreneur says. And not only did the financing “put me in a good financial place,” Anna adds, but after repayment, Breakout made it possible for her to effect a merger with a competitor by approving a second loan for about $30,000. “The best thing about Breakout,” she says, “has been the communication. One time I did need to make a payment two or three days late. But I just called (the account manager). I was very surprised because these kinds of companies are seen as a last resort. But it was like they were investing in us.”
John Speelman, who owns Poolesville Hardware in Poolesville, Md., can boast a raft of five-star Yelp reviews online. “Extremely helpful and friendly service, surprisingly good selection (and) the complete opposite of a big box hardware chain,” raves one customer. “It is so rare to find a well-stocked store that has helpful personnel—makes this store a real gem!” says another fan.
For his part, Speelman attributes much of his hardware store’s popularity to the financing arrangement that he’s been able to work out over the past eight years with Merchants Advance Network, a Fort Lauderdale (Fla.)-based alternative funder. “It takes money to make money,” is one of his pet aphorisms.
Located roughly 35 miles west of the White House, the hardware store boasts a clientele who tend to arrive in BMW’s rather than the pickup trucks that predominated a decade or so ago in this exurban community of some 5,000 denizens. Whatever their class background, though, they’re looking for items that are not a good match for an online purchase. “People don’t buy a toilet plunger, a can of paint or picture-hanging stuff online,” Speelman says. “Because they want to do that today,” he says, “they won’t order with Amazon.”
“One industry that has not been impacted” by online merchandisers, he adds, “is the garden center. They’ll buy a garden hose, weed killer and seeding,” he explains of his regular customers. “And light bulbs” while they’re there, he adds. “We’re like the 7-Eleven — a convenience store.”
To guarantee that convenience, Speelman pays cash-in-advance for most of his inventory, and banks have not been helpful. He contrasts the relationship he has with Michael Scalise, the chief executive at Merchants Advance, with loan officers at commercial banks. “It’s hard to get a loan for anything in retail,” he says. Never mind that he maintains “a high credit rating and I never bounce a check,” he went on. “There are no more local banks. At M&T Bank, all the managers I knew are gone and there’s always a new teller. The banking industry is a revolving door.” So he opts for capital from Merchants Advance “when I need 30-40-50 grand in a day, I use Mike’s money” even though the cost can be as steep as 25%, he says. If he doesn’t have something in stock – specialty items like ammo boxes, a Sugarplum tent, as many as 32 packs of size D batteries, metric measuring tapes – he can put in a special order with suppliers. But he prides himself on the full panoply of wares on his shelves. “You can’t sell from an empty cart,” is another of his favorite sayings.
Lori Hitchcock, who also draws capital from Merchants Advance, is manifestly displeased with the banking industry. She’s an owner with her husband of Hitchcock Trucking, the couple’s 60-year-old family business, which is located on a ten-acre tract in Webberville, Mich., situated between Detroit and Lansing, the state capital.
Of her experience with banks, Hitchcock says: “At the time we went with (Merchants Advance), banks weren’t lending. And they’re still not lending. We’re considered high-maintenance and high-risk. Banks don’t want a bunch of trucks” should they foreclose on a loan, she observes. “If you’re a farmer, they can take all your land. Great! In this crazy world you live in, it’s hard to get the banks interested.”
The Hitchcock family’s fleet of ten Peterbilt semis hitch up to more than 20 trailers and truck bodies – flatbeds, dump trucks, vans, and refrigerated trucks or “reefers” – and haul grain, sweet corn, onions, celery, fertilizer, and soft drinks across the Midwest. Most recently, she says, the family business took out $80,000 from Merchants Advance to expand its fleet and buy another reefer trailer and a backhoe. “Out here in the country, you always need a backhoe,” she says.
To satisfy her lender, the company makes daily ACH payments. “I’m not going to lie and say that things aren’t tight,” she says. “It is a burden. You just have to have constant cash-flow – which we do have. And it’s important to have good relationships…I can usually tell three weeks in advance if (making payments) is going to be challenging. So it all comes down to being loyal to people.”
Whatever the struggle to keep up with debt payments, it beats using her own money. “My husband and I are raising a family,” Hitchcock says, “and it’s nice having the cash so you’re not putting your personal earnings into the company.”
In Manchester, Conn., a stone’s throw east of Hartford, Corey Wry says that he wouldn’t be able to operate his two, highly rated restaurants just off Interstate 84 – Corey’s Catsup & Mustard and Pastrami on Wry – if he didn’t have funding from Pearl Capital, a New York (N.Y.)-based alternative funding company. A graduate of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, a restaurant-and hotel school, Wry describes himself as “a culinary guy” whose first love is serving food that’s both innovatively prepared and delicious. He candidly admits that his credit hit “rock bottom” after a confluence of untoward events.
Last year, a third restaurant in town, Chops & Catch, that he and some partners had “bootstrapped” had to shut down after six years of operation. Despite generally favorable reviews for such creative fare as the “lobsterburger,” the surf-and-turf themed restaurant was a money-loser. He was also struggling to pay off credit cards. And he’d been late more than once on car payments.
At the same time, Wry was in the process of moving Pastrami & Wry — a deli whose moniker is wordplay on his last name – to a new location. Both the general contractor and electrician were “over-budget” on that project, he says. Meanwhile, Catsup and Mustard, a hamburger spot, needed to be spruced up. Says he: “It was getting busier and the original seats were worn. I had a hole in a booth big enough to swallow someone.”
He approached a few banks for a loan and “it did not seem like it was going to happen,” he says. “Then I got a cold call from one of these financiers. Some of them had super-high rates. When you have bad credit but need to make capital improvements you do what you have to do.”
He’s accessed more than $100,000 from several alternative funding sources, including Pearl – from which he reports getting merchant cash advances for $30,000. But hard as it is to meet the obligations, which typically require a daily ACH payment, the financing has made renovating the burger place possible. Moreover, he’d still be on the hook with plumbers and other contractors – all of whom are local tradesmen and would likely be paying him personal visits until they were repaid — for the relocation of Pastrami & Wry.
“Business is good,” says Wry, who at 40 is single, often works 15-hour days, and says that he doesn’t have time for a girlfriend, much less a wife and family. “I’ve still got $3,200 on the books with the electrician,” he adds, “which means that I won’t be able to purchase a deli slicer. I have to plan these things out…”
James McGehee, a partner at the boutique accounting and tax-preparation firm McGehee, Davis & Associates, which is located in the Denver suburb of White Ridge, reports that the firm took a merchant cash advance from Pearl Capital, among other financiers, to bridge the gap between tax season and the rest of the year when billings invariably diminish. “Our overhead is pretty high,” he explains. “We’ve added two employees. We’ve been expanding on what we were doing, adding tax and accounting clients.”
A very conservative, sober-sounding man, McGehee explained that his credit was nonetheless “trashed” after he suffered from health problems five years ago. “Major stuff,” he says, “it was open-heart surgery.” The medical ordeal meant that he could not work for a time and had trouble paying his bills. “Some family members helped me through the mortgage and utilities payments and I ended up in arrears and in credit card debt,” he says.
All of which made an alternative source of financing his firm’s only option. “I’m not sure how we heard about Pearl,” he says. “I think they just happened to call. We took out [$11,000]. It was not a huge amount. We also borrowed $9,000 from another entity. We paid it all back during tax season. The terms were pretty steep,” McGehee adds.
“But when you need the money for cash-flow,” he explains, “you just absorb it. You grin and bear it. When you need the money, you need the money.”Last modified: July 27, 2020