Business lending options explored during recent panel discussion

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As business owners – or prospective business owners – look ahead to the post-COVID period, many are asking how they might best finance improvements or a start-up.

On Wednesday, April 14, the Ponte Vedra Beach Division of the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Council hosted a panel discussion on the many forms of lending available.

“Here in St. Johns County, we have the whole realm of capital access through different types of lending programs that most people are not aware of,” said moderator Ed Dwyer, who is a business consultant for the UNF Small Business Development Center.

Matt Price, vice president of commercial banking for Regions Bank, offered a look at traditional bank loans.

“We need a business to have been established for at least two or three years before we could take a look at it, for the most part,” he said.

Traditional banks are cash-flow lenders. And Price typically works with very large loans.

Joseph Rowell, chief operating officer with North Avenue Capital, explained how his organization is different from the traditional bank.

North Avenue Capital, which lends to businesses across the nation, underwrites commercial loans to rural businesses only. These loans are backed by a U.S. Department of Agriculture program similar to that of the Small Business Administration.

The loans tend to be between $1 million and $25 million, with an average of about $5 million. In deciding the make a loan, the organization looks at cash flow and fixed assets, such as real estate, machinery and equipment.

One question borrowers might have is whether or not they are considered “rural,” and thus eligible for the loan.

Rowell said a population of 50,000 or fewer is considered to be rural. He estimated that about 97% of the country – and 85% of St. Johns County – falls in that category.

The third member of the panel was Marius Dobren, co-owner of Sawgrass Finance.

“Our mission at Sawgrass Finance is just to help the small and medium-sized businesses secure their working capital by helping them use their assets to work for them,” he said.

The focus of the organization is collateral. The quality of the collateral determines the borrowing power.

“Cash flow is not really very important for us,” Dobren said. “We’re in the business to improve the company’s cash flow. It’s not the determinant factor, but we’re paying close attention when analyzing the financial statements to see how much skin in the game do the owners have.” 

Loans at Sawgrass Finance tend to be smaller: $500,000 to $1.5 million.

One thing the panelists emphasized was how they can work with one another when it’s in the best interest of the client. Because their clients have different sets of circumstances, the lenders are not necessarily competitors. But they can help clients borrow in different ways to meet their goals.

The panel discussion was held at the TPC Sawgrass Clubhouse and virtually via Zoom.

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