With a little help from its bank, Eli's Chicago's Finest Cheesecake is extending its limited benefits resources. The $15-million company is working with its lender, Columbia National Bank, based in Chicago, to offer low-cost benefits for workers in its commercial bakery and restaurant.

Columbia runs a program called Partnership in Banking, a package of discounted and free services offered to workers through their employers. It encourages employees to use direct-deposit paycheck services and gives them free checking, better interest rates on savings accounts, discounts on loans, and other advantages. The program helps Columbia cement relationships with corporate clients and market its services to individuals. Other banks offer similar programs.

Eli's -- one of the first companies to adopt Columbia's now four-year-old program -- takes the idea further. Its president, Marc Schulman, knew that many of his employees did without bank accounts, instead paying exorbitant fees for storefront check-cashing services. So he asked Columbia to teach his work force how to handle checking accounts, certificates of deposit, and consumer loans, as well as how to correct bad credit, and more. Bank specialists led classes at no charge.

Eli's also supplements consumer bank loans out of company cash. Schulman doesn't want to become a lender of last resort, so he lends money only when the bank already has done so, and only to longtime employees. He has also established a collateral pool to guarantee loans for people with marginal credit.

Moreover, the company has helped about 25 employees clean up bad credit by renegotiating agreements and transferring debt to lower-interest, long-term loans. "There's the danger that you end up running someone's life," Schulman says. "We make sure employees understand this is still their problem."

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