Thursday, November 11, 2010

Small businesses turn to microlenders when banks say no

DALLAS — Michelle Matta had never heard of microfinancing before landing a microloan.
After working for a promotional products company for eight years, she decided to branch out on her own. In 2007, she started A Turtle Loves Me, using her husband's nickname.

Within a week, she landed her first big contract — a $152,000 order for travel mugs from Corner Bakery Cafe. Within a month, she spent $5,000 in family savings.

Six months later, she asked her bank of 20 years for a $25,000 loan to buy an embroidery machine. The bank turned her down because she hadn't been in business for three years, Matta said.

Undeterred, she approached microlender Accion, which lent her the $25,000 at 13.5 percent interest.

"I really thought this would be a company that I ran on my credit cards for a while," said Matta, 42, who dropped out of high school at 17. By the end of 2007, sales totaled $233,000, and the home-based business was profitable. In the second year, her husband was able to quit his trucking job to work with her.

Since then, she has received two small loans from Accion Texas-Louisiana, which is based in San Antonio but has a Dallas office.

Microlending — lending small amounts of money to help people start or expand a business — usually is associated with developing countries.

Such programs began in the 1970s to provide credit and banking services to the poor.

On the rise in U.S.

Microlending is on the rise in the United States, filling a void as banks have tightened credit in the past few years. It serves a crucial role in helping entrepreneurs, especially low- to moderate-income people and minorities, gain access to capital.

U.S. microlenders made 9,191 loans totaling $100.9 million in fiscal 2008, the latest data available from the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit research group. Most of them provide loans up to $35,000, with a third making larger loans. There are
360 microlenders in the U.S.

U.S. microlenders have existed "below the radar" for a couple of decades, said Tammy Halevy, a senior vice president at the Association for Enterprise Opportunity in Washington.

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