In the wake of the credit crunch, the U.S. Small Business Administration's role in helping to guarantee loans for small companies has become more important than ever.
Ever since Congress created the SBA in 1953, this federal agency has helped guarantee millions of loans to small and mid-sized businesses, in addition to providing counseling, contracts, and other forms of assistance. The idea behind the SBA-backed loans was that the commercial banking system wasn't offering small business owners the same types of access to capital to start, grow, and keep their businesses functioning that those financial services institutions offer to larger businesses -- given that they often have more assets and collateral, a larger cash flow, and a lengthier and more proven credit history.
The SBA doesn't make loans itself, but rather establishes guidelines for loans that it will guarantee made by a range of partners, such as banks and other lenders, economic development organizations, and micro-enterprise lenders. By guaranteeing that the loans these institutions make to small business will be repaid, the federal government diminishes some of the risk to financial institutions so that they are more likely to consider lending to small businesses -- businesses they likely would have turned down without those guarantees. (See "Does the SBA Still Matter?" by Robb Mandelbaum, May 2007.)
"'We the people' are co-signing your small business loan," explains Rafael Cruz, regional director for the Florida Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in Fort Lauderdale, one of hundreds of SBA-backed small business assistance centers located around the country. "It's been one of the most effective business development plans in history. In reality, small business is one of the most risky things you can get into."
The truth is that many small businesses fail and there are a variety of reasons for this -- under-capitalization, lack of planning, or the person who owns the business is really good at one thing but bad another. For example, they may be good at baking cakes but maybe they don't know how to read financial reports. But after the credit crisis that started in 2008, banks seized up on loans to businesses and individuals and, in general, were lending only to established large businesses that were already highly capitalized. In this climate, SBA-backed loans became all the more important as a lifeline to small businesses and the federal government acted to lower rates and increase the amount of small business loans they would guarantee for banks, from 75 percent to 90 percent in some cases.
The following step-by-step guide will outline how businesses qualify for SBA-backed loans, the different type of loans that the SBA guarantees, and how to be successful in securing an SBA-backed loan.
How to Secure an SBA Loan: The Qualifications
SBA-backed loans are in principle open to any small business, but yours will need to meet certain criteria in order to qualify. And even if you meet the federal government's qualifications, you still need to apply to a commercial lender and be approved.
The government's qualifications for SBA-backed loans are the following:
• Your business first must be turned down for private financing. Yes, you read that correctly. Your business needs to try to get a loan from a bank or other financial institution or lender directly. Under law, the SBA can't guarantee loans to businesses that can obtain the money they need on their own. So you have to apply for a loan on your own and be turned down.
• Your business needs to meet the SBA's size requirements. In order to qualify as a small business, your firm needs to meet the government's definition of a small business for your industry. Some industry size requirements are based on average annual receipts; other industries are judged based on the number of employees, which generally can't exceed 500 workers -- although there are exceptions. The SBA maintains an exhaustive list of size requirements broken down by industry.
• Your business may need to meet other criteria depending on the type of loan. The SBA has a variety of loan guarantee programs for different purposes. These are explained below. Make sure to check the qualifications for the particular loan you want to determine your eligibility before applying.
• Your business also needs to meet lender qualifications. After determining that your business meets the SBA qualifications, you need to apply for a commercial loan -- and the qualifications for that are often more arduous. "To secure an SBA loan, you must to submit a loan application to a bank, credit union, or other financial company that processes SBA loans," says Jim Anderson, a management counselor for Orange County SCORE, a nationwide non-profit small business mentoring and training association, and a former management consultant who spent time working for Honeywell and the Ford Motor Co. "You will not directly secure the loan from the SBA; the SBA makes loans available through participating vendors and provides a government guarantee to the lenders. The SBA has designated some lenders as 'Preferred Lenders' that can approve loan requests on behalf of the SBA, which may expedite the loan process."
Since this is a government program, remember that requirements and practices and size definitions are subject to change depending on fiscal policy and economic conditions.
Some entrepreneurs and business owners have misconceptions about SBA-backed loans. "The business has to be in good standing," Cruz says. "Another misconception is the SBA comes in to help a business that would have failed. 'We the people' don't want out money to be used to guarantee a failing business. The program doesn't exist just to give a woman a loan. She has to be a woman with decent credit, money of her own, a great business plan, and a little success. You can't have a business that lost money and expect the SBA or anybody else to guarantee that loan. It wouldn't make sense."
How to Secure an SBA Loan: Types of SBA Loans
SBA loans come in several types, with different allowable uses. "Most of these loans can be used for working capital, to renovate business facilities, purchase equipment, finance receivables, and in some cases, finance the purchase of company facilities," Anderson says. "Existing businesses and start-ups can qualify for SBA business loans, but some lenders do not fund start-ups."
Before applying, it's best to do your homework about the different types of loans. Most are known by names that reflect the section of the law that created the loan category. Here are the basic categories of SBA-backed loans:
This is the SBA's most commonly used -- and most flexible -- type of loan to help start-up and existing small businesses when they can't get funding through normal channels. It was named for section 7(a) of the Small Business Act. It's flexible because it can be used for a variety of purposes, including buying machinery or equipment or furniture, purchasing real estate, leasehold improvements, working capital or even debt refinancing. The maturity term for these loans is up to 10 years for working capital and up to 25 years for fixed assets. In general, the SBA's maximum exposure for such loans is capped at $1.5 million and since the agency will back up to 75 percent of a 7(a) loan that means a business could borrow up to $2 million. (The SBA's share of such loans was raised to 90 percent under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which became law in February 2009, but is expected to drop back down unless extended by Congress.)
Within 7 (a) loans, there are different types, including:
• Express Programs This includes SBAExpress, an accelerated loan that promises a response to an application within 36 hours. The maximum guarantee for these loans is 50 percent. Other categories include Community Express, for businesses needing financial and technical assistance in underserved communities, and Patriot Express, which are designed for businesses majority-owned by veterans or members of the military.
• Export Loan Programs These are designed to help companies that export with loans and working capital.
• Rural Lender Advantage Program These loans are designed to promote the economic development in rural communities, in particular communities that are losing population, have high unemployment, or are losing industries.
• Special Purpose Loans Program This category includes help to businesses for a range of reasons, from negative impacts from the North American Free Trade Agreement to helping implement pollution controls to providing assistance to Employee Stock Ownership Plans.
This is the type of loan that provides small businesses with long-term, fixed rate funding to buy generally real estate or machinery or equipment for expansion or modernization. A private lender must agree to cover up to 50 percent of the loan. Meanwhile, a Certified Development Company, which is one of hundreds of private, nonprofit corporations designed to help economic development, picks up 40 percent of the loan. The borrower must contribute at least 10 percent equity. "This loan involves a major capital acquisition for machinery, equipment, and/or real estate," Cruz says. "A business may want to move out of rental space and buy a small building and this is the loan for them. They have to have 51 percent occupancy. You could not buy the building and occupy only 1 percent." The SBA's maximum debenture is $1.5 million when companies agree to job creation or community development goals. In general, businesses are required to create or retain one job for every $65,000 funded by the SBA -- although small manufacturers have a $100,000 job retention or creation requirement. That SBA contribution can go up to $2 million ($4 million for small manufacturers) if public policy goals are met, including revitalization of a business district, export expansion, minority business develop, rural development, among other goals.
For small (up to $35,000), short-term loans, the SBA's Microloan Program may be right to give your business the help it needs. The loans may be used for working capital or the purchase of inventory, furniture or fixtures, supplies, machinery, and/or equipment. The target audience is small businesses and not-for-profit child-care centers that need small-scale financing and perhaps some technical assistance for the purpose of starting up or expanding. These loans are administered through certain designated microloan lenders, which are nonprofit organizations with experience in financing small loans and providing businesses with technical assistance.
How to Secure an SBA Loan: The Application
Applying for an SBA loan is like applying for a regular commercial loan -- except this may be the last resort for your businesses because you have to have been turned down for a business loan on your own. It's not as simple as walking into an SBA office and asking for a loan application. You need to do all the necessary homework and put together all the necessary paperwork that you would before approaching a commercial bank. That means you need to review your personal credit history and be prepared to discuss. You need to assemble the historical financial reports from your business. And you need to have a business plan.
Most borrowers should seek some assistance from a party who has experience in preparing SBA loan packages and is aware of the lenders' criteria, Anderson says. Help can usually be obtained from SCORE, Small Business Development Centers, Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) and consultants who are available in many communities.
"It is important to understand that lenders need considerable information to justify making a loan and to support their request for an SBA guarantee," Anderson says. "Succeeding in small business is often difficult, and lenders, while willing to take some risk, must protect themselves from losing money on the loan. Lenders need to be convinced that you are likely to pay back the loan with the interest specified."
The following steps will help you put together a winning SBA loan package:
• Review your credit report. "A major consideration for a lender to make a loan is the 'character' of the borrower," Anderson says. "Lenders want to loan money to people who have a positive track record for paying their obligations as agreed." The "Fair Isaac Credit Score" (FICO) is one measure used to evaluate character. Credit scores can range from 300-850, and it is very important that you have a relatively high score to be able to secure a SBA loan. While some SBA loans may be made with FICO scores below 700, potential borrowers with scores in the high 700s or 800s are generally greeted with respect by lenders. You can review your credit reports -- for free -- from all three credit-reporting companies -- Experian, Equifax and TransUnion -- once per year to insure that they are accurate. You need to be prepared because the bank will pull the credit reports on you. If you find mistakes on your credit reports, take steps to correct those mistakes and bring the e-mails, letters, and other correspondence with you to the bank when applying for a loan. "When you go to the bank, you can say, 'It's a mistake. It's not me.' And you have the letter to show them," says Cruz. "At least it's not a surprise to you. You don't want to be surprised." Professionals also can provide guidance for improving credit scores. Personal income tax reports for three years will be required for all parties that own at least 20 percent of the company's equity. A weak FICO Score from a 20 percent to 25 percent owner can badly damage the obtaining of a SBA Small Business Loan.
• Develop your business plan. You need to have a business plan that states in writing what your business is, what you need money for, and why you will be successful. If you have a 25-page business plan already, you can update the Executive Summary section with information about your financing needs. If you don't have a business plan, you need to develop one -- even a five-page document will be more impressive than none at all. Templates and software are available online to provide valuable guidance. For example, SCORE has a template that provides considerable help. Inc. also has a guide on how to write a business plan. "It is useful to have an experienced businessperson review and critique the draft business plan," Anderson says. In addition, Cruz adds, have someone review your plan for grammar and spelling.
• Assemble a complete financial history. In addition to your personal credit information, a lender is going to want to know that your business has a stable financial history. "An accurate and complete financial history is very important to lend credibility to the SBA loan request," Anderson says. "If you are currently in business, lenders will want to see profit and loss statements for three complete fiscal years and the current year to date. In addition they will want a recent balance sheet, within the last 60 days." If you are just starting a business, this step is not required. But keep in mind that it is much more difficult to obtain SBA loans for start-up businesses than existing businesses.
• Prepare financial projections. A lender is going to want to see some evidence that you'll be able to pay back the loan. The most important information you can provide a lender is a cash-flow projection. A monthly cash-flow projection of 12 to 24 months or more may be required by the lender; however, this period may vary by lender and/or type of business. "Cash is the 'life blood' of small business, and you and the lender need to take precautions to be sure that you will not run out of cash," Anderson says. It also may be necessary to provide projections of profit & loss statements and/or balance sheets. Again, this will vary by lender and/or type of business.
• Contact lenders. You need to find a bank or lender that works with the SBA. Most leading commercial banks will offer 7(a) loans, but so do credit unions and other lenders. You can find a list of local SBA lenders by state on the SBA website. "You can contact more than one," Cruz says. "But this should not be the first time you meet the banker. There are three people that every business person should have a relationship with -- an accountant that knows your industry, a lawyer that knows your industry, and a banker that knows your industry." If you have a relationship with a banker, that's who you start with, Cruz says. If you don't know the bankers in your community, try to get around it by having someone you know refer you. Call possible lenders, providing a brief profile of you and your business to see if the lender has an interest in exploring the possibility of a loan. If so, make an appointment to meet the lender(s).
• Meet with lender(s). You (and your advisors) should dress in a professional manner, as it is important for the lender to get an immediate positive impression, Anderson says. After a brief introduction, you should present the lender with two copies of your business plan, including your financial projections. You should discuss your business including the loan you are requesting (a formal written presentation is not required). The lender will ask questions and you should be prepared to provide detailed information in response. "Make the lender feel comfortable doing business with you," Anderson says. If the lender is comfortable with the relationship, s/he will provide you with an SBA Loan Package that includes forms required by the SBA and information the lender requires. (SBA loan applications from different lenders are similar, but can vary.) One such form is authorization for the lender to access your personal credit reports -- it is generally wise to minimize the number of such authorizations, as each time a lender checks your credit it will impact your FICO Score.
• Work with the lender. Cooperate with the lender by providing all information requested, so that the lender can complete the evaluation and, if the lender decides to make a deal, submit materials to the SBA, Anderson says. If the loan is approved, you will be notified and requested to sign final loan papers. The lender will then fund the SBA Loan.
"Follow up and treat a lender like you treated your significant other before you got married," Cruz says. "It's a romance. Ask, 'What can I do? Is there anything else you need?' Always be polite and professional. You can be friendly with them but it's professional. It's a business relationship and keep it as such and it will help you down the line."
How to Secure an SBA Loan: Recommended Resources
SCORE volunteer counselors (working or retired business owners, executives or corporate leaders) provide free business advice to entrepreneurs.
Small Business Association is a federal government agency that provides assistance to help start, build, and grow businesses.
Small Business Center offers information on government business loans.
Power Homebiz Guides is a publisher of home business and small business information.