There’s better news on the financial horizon for small businesses, writes Diana Clement

The world of finance for small business has changed hugely since the dark days of 2008. For some of New Zealand's 400,000 SMEs, businesses finance was nigh impossible to come by in 2009 and 2010.

In a few short years the trend has reversed and it has become a buyers' market again for businesses that can demonstrate good fundamentals. Banks are falling over themselves to stump up better deals.

Nicholas Stanhope, ASB's general manager of business banking, says SMEs that survived the global financial crisis are generally stronger and more robust and can make a better case for borrowing.

One common misnomer in this market is that the finance company failures have led to a contraction in business lending. The finance companies that collapsed were mostly lending for property-related development.


Those that mostly steered clear of property are still in business. They include GE Capital, UDC, Marac and PGG Wrightson Finance.

The "traditional" way that business owners fund growth, says Stanhope, is with equity in their home. Until the equity runs out, that is. Thanks to the global crisis, however, business owners aren't so keen to borrow against the family home.

In the past couple of years banks have started providing asset financing, which was traditionally offered by finance companies. The trade-off is that interest rates are higher on asset-based loans secured against plant and machinery.

Asset finance lenders Marac and PGG Wrightson are now part of the Heartland Building Society, which has ramped up lending to the SME market.

James Mitchell, head of business and operations at Heartland, says businesses that own property will often look better to traditional banks. "However, many businesses don't, and their assets may just be the plant and equipment that generates your cashflow," Mitchell says.

"If you are a contractor and your only business assets are a couple of diggers and a truck - that has traditionally been what asset financiers have done."

Heartland doesn't target very small business, preferring those with $1m to $20m turnover that can be funded off the business balance sheet.

SMEs looking for finance can do themselves a lot of favours by making sure they work with lenders, understanding their financial statements, and being prepared.

The classic case, says Stanhope, that makes a lender's heart sink is the call at 4pm on a Friday from a business owner who realises he or she can't pay the wages.

A business is more likely to be viewed favourably by lenders if they front up a week before the cashflow crisis, show they have been planning, explain there is a "short-term timing issue" and raise short-term finance. "We think these guys know what they are doing," says Stanhope. "They are looking at a commercial proposition."

ANZ managing director of business banking Fred Ohlsson says one of the big changes in recent years at his bank is that business bankers spend more time with clients developing the banking relationship. "We do an A-Z review with businesses)

"We take the time to understand their cashflow situation - we can tell them what they need."

Ohlsson says a business might ask for a credit card, but the banker would suggest that a credit line might be more flexible.

He adds that business bankers have a wealth of commercial knowledge that can be shared with customers. "I might look after 150 to 200 customers and have a lot of experience in different sectors."

The ANZ, Westpac and others also offer free workshops for small businesses to educate them and enable them to network. "SMEs are the engine room of the New Zealand economy and it's important they have the skills they need to be the best they can be," says Westpac CEO Peter Clare.

Banks are more about finance for growth rather than start-up finance and one of the big problems for start-ups in particular is that the time when they really need money is often the time that the big boys such as banks are nervous about providing sizeable chunks of money.

Advice for those looking for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars can be obtained from a number of third-party sources including financial advisers who specialise in business finance.

Local economic development agencies such as Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) can also provide advice. ATEED has offices in Orewa, Auckland central, Albany, Henderson, Highbrook and Pukekohe, and works with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, says Clyde Rogers, the agency's general manager for business and sector development.