Citigroup's Jerome Byers works to improve small business status

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NEW YORK — When small-business owners hear the name Citigroup, they’re more likely to think of a bank that caters to big corporate and international clients, not one serving their needs.

Jerome Byers, head of Citigroup's small business banking operations, is working to change the impression that the company caters to just big corporate and international clients.   M. SPENCER GREEN/ASSOCIATED PRESS
M. SPENCER GREEN/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Jerome Byers, head of Citigroup's small business banking operations, is working to change the impression that the company caters to just big corporate and international clients.

Jerome Byers, the head of Citi’s small business banking operations – and a former small business owner himself – is trying to change that impression.

Citi hasn’t let small-business owners know how much the bank can do for them, said Byers, who has been in his current role since June of last year. Under his leadership, the bank has increased its lending to small companies in the past year by 24 percent to $7.9 billion.

Byers once owned a hair salon, so he has seen the small-business-banker relationship from both sides. Here are some excerpts from his interview with the AP, edited for clarity and brevity:

Q: There is a perception that Citi isn’t a small business banker. How do you correct that impression?

A: In the small-business area, we need to show the value that Citi brings. We know how to lend money. We have talented bankers. We need to tell our story better.

We have a 1,000-branch network in the United States that last year lent $7.9 billion to small business owners. That’s a great story. There are 260,000-plus customers in that network. We need to talk a little bit more about that.

Q: How do you get this done when Citi has been cutting staff? (Citigroup had 253,000 employees on June 30, down from 261,000 a year earlier).

A: If you ask small-business owners who is the person they most like to deal with, they’ll say, the branch manager. I took probably the best 100 or so small business bankers I had, and continued to invest in their training to provide that advice.

Q: What can small-busi­ness customers get from Citi they won’t get elsewhere?

A: We can connect small-business owners in 150 of the largest cities in the world. We have behind us the most talented and probably most revered investment banks, and we can leverage those resources.

Q: What is Citi doing to increase the number of loans to small businesses?

A: You’ve got to look for ways to help get capital into the system. While we have bankers out on the street, we’re also working through our foundation and other partners to go to areas and say, let’s figure out unique ways to do micro lending, let’s figure out unique ways to work with veterans, to jump-start companies.

You’ve got to look for niches in the segment where there’s opportunity to lend. But they need a little bit extra from their banker or their partner.

In this economy, small- business banking isn’t just the lending, it’s doing the things you can do ... to help small businesses to become medium-size businesses, to become big businesses.

Q: What do your bankers do to help a small business when it’s turned down for a loan?

A: I don’t use the words “turned down.” What a banker should be saying to a business owner is, “here’s what we need to do to be able to lend you the money and help you grow.” Before we say, “we can’t lend you the money now,” we’ll see if there are alternative ways to finance – alternatives like Small Business Administration loans – and see if there’s a way we can partner with SBA to give that money. If that doesn’t work, then it becomes an advice discussion – let us advise you on what your business needs to look like to expand the way you’d like to. I don’t like to use “turn down” as much as I like to use “advice.”

Q: What is your take on the state of small business today?

A: Slowly we’ve seen their confidence in the economy come back. I would say now that primarily they are confident that the economy is going to grow in the next few years. And they’re starting to act in that entrepreneurial spirit.

At the same time, we’re in a period of evolution, from a global standpoint and a technology standpoint. The world is shrinking and the competitive landscape, even for small businesses, is becoming more clouded by globalization and the technology advances. I think the way that small businesses have to think is changing.

Q: So, you’ve been a small business owner yourself. What was that like?

A: I owned a barber and beauty salon and it was a very interesting learning experience for me. When I was in college, I was a barber, so I bought something I knew. I didn’t cut hair in the salon, I just owned it. As a banker, I understood the balance sheet and the income statement. As an owner, truthfully, I rarely looked at the balance sheet and the income statement, because I spent my time on customers and employees.


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