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Wells Fargo exec: Small businesses need guidance

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(AP photo)
Lisa Stevens, a regional banking executive of Wells Fargo, poses for a photo in her office in Los Angeles.

NEW YORK – When Lisa Stevens speaks about her role as head of small business banking at Wells Fargo & Co., she focuses more on how she can help her customers rather than how she can grow the bank’s loan portfolio.

Wells Fargo is already one of the country’s biggest lenders to small business. Over the past 10 years, it has made more Small Business Administration-backed loans than any other bank, with a total of $8.5 billion. But Stevens is aware that her customers also include those who can’t qualify for a loan.

“It’s about getting a plan and helping people to set up and establish goals and move forward,” says Stevens, who has led Wells Fargo’s small business banking operations for two years.

Stevens meets with small business owners several times a week, and finds that many are in need of guidance.

“They don’t know what they don’t know, and they don’t know what’s available to help them,” she says.

Wells Fargo is working to expand its services to business owners, including finding more ways for them to do their banking via mobile devices. Stevens writes a blog aimed, in part, at women business owners. And Wells Fargo continues to promote its lending programs, particularly to women-owned companies.

Stevens, who volunteers with groups including the National Boys & Girls Club of America, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, says she learned when she was growing up that it’s important to help others. She says that contributes to her focus on helping small businesses, or as she puts in, making a difference with the bank’s customers.

Stevens recently spoke with The Associated Press about her job and small businesses. Here are excerpts, edited for brevity and clarity:

Q. What’s your take on the state of small businesses and their recovery from the recession?

A. It’s been very broad, with positive trends and we’ve seen it regionally and across major industries. In regions like California and Florida and Arizona and the industries that were significantly impacted by the recession, we’ve seen the most improvement. We saw a really good increase in loans. For the first half, we saw year-over-year a 25 percent increase in our small business lending.

We know that over 20 percent of small businesses are in industries that are directly impacted by what happens in the overall real estate market. Construction, interior design, architectural services, landscaping, the list goes on. But we think there would also be a much larger impact on all small businesses from an improvement in the real estate market. Consumer spending is helped by the recovery in home prices. So theoretically, we would expect to see a significant improvement in overall small business financial health just from the improving real estate market.

We also think there’s a lag effect from business owners being cautious and holding off on hiring until they see a tangible change in demand for their products and services. We think that’s going to catch up as they see what’s happening with the real estate market.

Q. Small business owners are a changing demographic. Younger entrepreneurs are much more savvy about technology and social media than older ones. How do you keep your bankers current so your 50-year-old banker understands the way a 30-year-old owner works?

A. We keep our bankers current by having them keep us current. We’ve got an array of team members working for us, including a very large population of millennials (people age 18 to 29). We’ve got to be making sure that we’re soliciting their feedback on how we connect and spend time with customers, and make sure we’re giving them the things they need. We just rolled out mobile phone receipts for ATMs. That may not be as important to me, but to someone in their 20s, having something to access using their mobile device is really important.

When we rolled out the business needs section of our website a year ago, we spent a lot of time taking our team members of every generation through it, and asking, what are we missing? What do we need to make sure we’re paying attention to? And making sure we had a digital aspect to it. When you look at the senior executives in most financial institutions, they’re typically all at least in their 40s if not older. We need to talk to that new generation that’s just starting to work in our industry and understand again how we communicate with millennials and understand what’s different about them. Is it important for them to be able to follow a Twitter feed or look at a Facebook page? Or have easy access to the Wells Fargo blog so you can click on something and get information at your fingertips?

The one thing that I’m positive of is, even if you want to do everything from a digital perspective, at some point in your small business career, you’re going to need an advocate, someone to sit down and talk about you financial plan and you’re going to need that relationship. I think that’s one thing we’re teaching small business millennial customers. You want to build a relationship. You want someone who can give you that guidance. My analogy is, it would be great if you never had to go see your doctor, and he could prescribe everything over the phone or by email or text, but the reality is every once in a while, the doctor has to see you and talk with you and examine you. I think that’s the same with banking.

Q. If you were to start a small business, what would it be?

A. My husband and I have always had this idea that someday, we’re going to go to Italy to a cooking school in Florence, where you go for four weeks and they teach you, then come back to California and go to Napa Valley or Sonoma area and open a very small trattoria, live in a mobile home and blow money on a restaurant. It would be really small, with 10 tables, and have good food and good wine.

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