Many of the most successful businesses are financed by banks, which can provide small to moderate amounts of capital at market costs. They don’t want control—at least beyond the control exerted in the covenants of a loan document. And they don’t want ownership. Bankers make loans, not investments, and as a general rule, they don’t want to wind up owning your company.
Bankers primarily provide debt financing. You take out a loan and pay it back, perhaps in installments consisting of principal and interest, perhaps in payments of interest only, followed by a balloon payment of the principal. One of the nice things about debt financing is that the entrepreneur doesn’t have to give up ownership of his company to get it.
Bankers can usually be counted on to want minimal, if any, input into how the business is run. Get behind on the payment schedule, however, and you’re likely to find a host of covenants buried in your loan documentation. Loan covenants may require you to do all sorts of things, from setting a minimum amount of working capital you must maintain to prohibiting you from making certain purchases or signing leases without bank approval. Be sure to have your accountant, financial advisor or attorney review your loan documents and spell out everything for you very carefully before you sign.
A banker’s first concern is getting the bank’s money back plus a reasonable return. To increase their odds, bankers look for certain things, including everything from a solid explanation of why you need the money and what you’re going to use it for to details about other borrowing or leasing deals you’ve entered into.
Bank loan applications can be almost as long and complete as a full-fledged business plan. Plans and loan applications aren’t interchangeable, however. A banker may not be interested in your rosy projections of future growth. In fact, when confronted with the kind of growth projection required to interest a venture capitalist, a banker may be turned off. On the other hand, a banker is likely to be quite interested in seeing a contingency plan that will let you pay back the loan, even in the event of a worst-case scenario.
The five things a banker will look for you to address are:
The old saying about bankers lending only to people who don’t need to borrow is almost true. Bankers prefer to lend to companies that are almost, but not quite, financially robust enough to pursue their objective without the loan. Their natural tendency is to be conservative.
This is important to understand because it affects how and when you will borrow. You should try to foresee times you’ll need to borrow money and arrange a line of credit or other loan before you need it. That will make it easier and, in many cases, cheaper in terms of interest rates than if you wait until you’re a needier and, in bankers’ eyes, less-attractive borrower.