Banking on small business

How Bank of the West and Colorado Enterprise Fund partnered to help a minority business owner and his community

When Trung Nguyen moved to Colorado from Portland, Oregon two years ago, little did he know his previous experience as a small business banker there would serve him well here in Denver.

As the new Branch Manager of Bank of the West Bank of the West in Littleton, Nguyen, who "loves dealing with small businesses," reached out to local professionals in the area to get to know the community and was introduced to An (Billy) Lam, owner of a family business that provides wholesale food supplies to Asian restaurants and markets across Denver and in Boulder.

This established minority-owned small business had done well over the years, growing to fill a 14,000 sf warehouse with $500,000 in paid inventory and employing up to 10 people. In the process, Lam had become an influential leader in the Asian community, working his way up from washing dishes to helping mentor and support other local businesses.

The success of Lam's business allowed him to get financing from various banks until the effects of the recession also affected his bottom line. Restaurants and markets that were his regular customers were seeing fewer customers themselves so they bought less. Fixed costs for maintaining his business didn't decrease and cash flow took a hit. Lam sought help.

After visiting another bank for a line of credit (LOC), Lam came to Bank of the West to talk with Nguyen. They discussed his financing options. Having reached out to establish relationships with alternative lenders when he first came to Denver, Nguyen contacted Alan Ramirez, Assistant Lending Director at Colorado Enterprise Fund (CEF), a nonprofit small business lending partner. Would CEF consider approving an LOC for Lam in his current financial situation?

Ramirez, who works with minority-owned and other small businesses referred to him by banks when they don't qualify for traditional financing, took a hard look at Lam's financial records, his track record as a small business and his legacy in the local Asian community. Working with the flexibility, integrity and commitment to small businesses and community development that CEF is known for, Ramirez was able to put together a loan package Lam could manage to pay and still stay in business.

Nguyen was grateful to CEF for helping his client (now a Bank of the West customer) to overcome this challenge and remain a strong contributing member of the Asian community while retaining jobs his business directly and indirectly supports. "Billy is such a nice guy," Nguyen said. Getting this LOC from CEF to use as working capital was a big deal since there were "no other options" for Lam.

Doing his best to find financial resources for his small business clients to fill the gap that Bank of the West can't is what keeps Nguyen working with CEF and other nonprofit small business lenders. His advice to other bankers working to help small businesses: "Take pride in knowing your customers. Admire them for their courage [understanding they] gamble everyday with their small businesses."