Selecting the right commercial banker crucial for small businesses

By Kevin Dietrich, The State

Clarence Dickerson offers simple advice for those interested in opening a business banking account – meet your prospective banker face to face.

A small-business banker for Wachovia in Columbia, Dickerson said his job is to establish a partnership with his customers. The initial meeting between banker and businessperson can be beneficial to both.

“You want a commercial banker who understands your business, one who won’t do the wrong thing for you,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is provide a service or product that’s not right for the customer.”

There are a variety of business banking accounts available at dozens of banks across South Carolina, but dollars and cents sometimes take a backseat when a businessperson goes shopping for a bank.

“For me, it comes down to relationships,” said I. Jenkins Mikell III, owner of the Palmetto Insurance Group in Columbia. “When I need something, I like to be able to pick up the phone and talk to somebody who knows my business. I tend to bank with people I’ve met and know.”

Mikell, who also has interests in several real estate holding companies, said he has banking relationships with four different institutions.

“Bankers, like most other businesspeople, are always out networking,” he said. “If you get to know someone in a social setting, you can call them up later and they know who you are.”

Nan Hood and Phyllis Hoverman chose a different route. The owners of Pages from the Heart, a Forest Drive scrapbook store that began earlier this year, the pair simply opened their business banking account with the institution that gave them their startup loan, Bank of America.

“We figured as long as they helped us with the loan, we might as well bank with them,” Hood said.


Many banks offer different accounts, depending on the size of the business.

Laurens-based Palmetto Bank features two business accounts: Basic Business, for smaller customers, including those just starting; and Commercial Checking, for larger companies making a number significant transactions monthly.

The Basic Business account allows 200 transaction per month without charge. Each transaction over 200 is billed at 35 cents apiece.

The Commercial Checking account is billed 30 cents for each deposit slip, 18 cents for each check written and 8 cents for each item deposited.

“Before we open an account, we like to do an analysis of the company,” said Randy Traynham, corporate services manager with The Palmetto Bank. “We look at their activity for the past three months or, if they’re a new business, get an idea what type of activity they expect.”

Tim Wilkes, the chairman of the S.C. Small Business Chamber and a small-businessman, said he often refers people looking to establish a business banking account to community banks.

“Community banks are like me, they’re usually a small business and tend to be small-business friendly,” he said. “They tend to be less intimidating, and it’s easier to develop a one-on-one relationship.”

The last part is crucial, Wilkes said.

“Small-business people always encounter problems, whether it be overdrafts or someone writing them a bad check,” he said. “Problem-solving is a lot more immediate when you have a one-on-one relationship.”

Dickerson of Wachovia said he advises businesspeople to look beyond their immediate needs, to find someone who can develop with them.

“I always encourage customers to establish a relationship with a bank that deals not just with loans and deposits, but one that has a working relationship with the SBA,” Dickerson said. “If we’re not able to make a conventional loan, we can work with the SBA to help them.”

Wilkes said strong business-to-bank relationships are invaluable.

“When you have a one-on-one relationship with a banker, they can refer you to competent professionals such as lawyers, CPAs and insurance agents,” he said. “They can be tremendously helpful.”

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