How to Choose a Financial Partner in a Recovering Economy

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It’s difficult to believe it’s been more than five years since the recession began. As we reflect on lessons learned throughout those challenging economic times and begin to incorporate them into growth plans for the future, it’s natural to experience hesitation, as the impact is still evident in our memories.

Believe it or not, the economic rebound is happening around us. Unemployment statistics show that local companies are growing. The year 2013 showed a significant upswing in many of our industries—perhaps most notably in construction. During the recession we saw multiple projects brought to a standstill, while only public and government-financed developments were able to continue. Yet according to a Cascade Business News report in December 2013, we saw the largest increase in private sector construction projects than ever before, which is obviously a very encouraging statistic. And when it comes to jobs, according to the State of Oregon Employment Department, Deschutes County’s unemployment rate posted the largest drop of Oregon’s metro areas in 2013, and gained 1,920 jobs, the majority of which were in the private sector.

Yet even though the economy is trending upward, it’s natural for business owners to hesitate to expand. Whether they plan to grow in head count or with a capital investment, from an economic perspective, individuals are in a much better position to qualify for a business loan today than they were even last year. And while the loan process can be intimidating, business owners should use a standard when determining a financial institution.

When it comes to taking that first step, there are three key points to consider.

1. Do your homework.

It’s imperative to research and educate yourself about the new employees and individuals with whom you choose to do business, and the same should be said about your financial institution. When you look for a bank, not only are you looking for an individual partner, but an organization that holds similar values and priorities. Seeking references is a great practice for hiring employees, why not do the same for a prospective bank? Prepare yourself in advance and ask for references from a banker or fellow business owner. Your relationship with an institution can ultimately help you in terms of successful planning, increasing efficiency in operations, and positioning your business to get more capital with the bank.

2. Consider the accessibility of your bank.

One aspect to consider with any institution is access. Contrary to what many people believe, banks are lending. When your business is ready to grow, you will want a bank that can grow with you. Regardless, make sure it can offer all the products and services you are looking for, and determine how accessible they are. Research how and where the decisions are made for business loan applications. Are the decisions made locally or is it done elsewhere in the country? How do these decisions get made within your bank? As lenders and trusted financial advisors, we must be responsible for offering deals that are flexible enough to create opportunities for business owners and entrepreneurs, but structured to be sustainable for the long term.

3. Research your bank’s investment in the local community.

What’s good for the city is good for its businesses. It may seem like a warm and fuzzy factor, but when it comes to our community, banks play a crucial role. Look into questions like: What kind of community service does the company encourage employees to seek? How involved are its employees with your local area? It is good practice to be knowledgeable about your bank and how they support the community.

Gary_OConnell_ReadoutFor example, consider how a bank sustains its own growth. Has the bank acquired or merged with other intuitions? How has it handled that transition? For Columbia Bank, we’ve acquired eight community banks in the last nine years, growing from 33 to more than 140 branches. In identifying potential banks for acquisition, it was crucial that we find organizations with a culture that places community at its core. This sustained, strategic growth has allowed the bank to expand while maintaining an authentic understanding of each neighborhood in which we do business. Our bankers work closely with our customers, emphasizing personalized, local decision-making and this includes decisions on where giving of both time and charitable donations are directed. Columbia Bank team members of Deschutes County have volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, Humane Society of Central Oregon, Junior Achievement, Bend’s Community Center and NeighborImpact, to name a few.

We are seeing steady economic improvement across the region, and we’re proud that institutions like Columbia Bank have continued to survive and support economic development in our local communities. Our state is on a positive trajectory with increases in private and public sector job growth, lowered unemployment rates and overall optimism in business. The right financial institutions are ready to lend money and help businesses expand, become stronger and more viable. By working together, we can continue to bring jobs and prosperity to our local communities in the long term.

Gary O’Connell is SVP, Commercial Team Leader at Columbia Bank. He manages the regional commercial team covering Central Oregon. For more information about Columbia Bank, visit www.ColumbiaBank.com.

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