Bucking The System
When Henrick Coriolan immigrated to the United States from Haiti nearly 20 years ago, he came with nothing. Nothing, that is, but the entrepreneurial spirit and a dream of turning himself into a successful businessman. "I came to work, to learn and to be a professional," he says.
Today, with a small New York City taxicab fleet and an auto service center in Brooklyn, New York, Coriolan has achieved success by almost any yardstick. It took a lot of hard work, to be sure. But it also took capital. Coriolan got his, thanks to the federal government's venture capital programs. More important, his experience may provide a guide for other entrepreneurs looking for a place to go when banks say no.
Coriolan raised funds through a Specialized Small Business Investment Company (SSBIC), which is licensed by the SBA. He could have also tapped a plain old Small Business Investment Company (SBIC), also licensed by the SBA. The first "S" in the former title refers to "specialized" firms that concentrate on making funds available to economically disadvantaged people. Because Coriolan was an immigrant and an African-American, he qualified under the SSBIC program.
Whether it's an SBIC or SSBIC, there are some important things entrepreneurs should understand about these capital sources before applying.
First, many entrepreneurs labor under the mistaken impression that there is an arm of the government that gives money to businesses that can't secure financing from traditional sources. Are SBICs and SSBICs this elusive Holy Grail? No. In fact, the concept of entitlements, which carries significant weight within the federal government at large, is not prevalent in the SBA.
Second, many entrepreneurs believe the SBA, through a mechanism such as an SBIC or SSBIC, lends money to businesses even if there is no visible source of repayment. That's not true, either.
Briefly exploring the financial structure of these SBA-licensed investment companies shows what kinds of deals they will and will not do, and what sorts of companies should spend their time pursuing this option.
For example, Freshstart Venture Capital Corp., the New York City firm that loaned money to Coriolan, gets its money from two places. The first is from public and private investors, through whom Freshstart founder Zindel Zelmanovitch raises equity capital. But the second, far more substantial source of capital for Freshstart is loans from an SBA trust fund.
Like all SBICs and SSBICs, Freshstart pays interest on the funds it borrows, meaning it must get involved in deals where it receives interest as well. The difference between the interest it pays and the interest it receives is the source of its money.
Because the interest they pay for obtaining funds can be quite low, from 4 percent to 7 percent, and the price they charge to lend those funds can be quite high, from 9 percent to 17 percent, SBICs and SSBICs can be quite profitable. Freshstart, for instance, earned approximately $781,000 on about $1.8 million in interest income for the 12 months ending November 30, 1997. The company also paid its shareholders a dividend of $0.44 per share--not bad for a $6.50 stock.
The only exception to the above scenario is a relatively new wrinkle in which SBICs and SSBICs issue so-called participating securities to the SBA, which in turn permits lenders to defer interest payments until the underlying investments start to generate cash or create a windfall in the form of a capital gain. When this happens, the SBA gets not only its interest and principal, but a hunk of the investment companies' profits as well.
What's the idea behind such a structure? According to Zelmanovitch, one effect is to encourage or enable investment companies to make investments in earlier-stage companies. A purist might say you can never get a lender to behave like an equity investor because at the end of the day, the participating securities are debt. But participating securities still seem like a good idea, even if they only serve to make lenders more adventurous than they might otherwise tend to be.
So what kinds of companies should seek financing from SBICs or SSBICs? Generally, says Zelmanovitch, they should be companies with cash flow that can support monthly interest payments and pay off a loan. This tends to eliminate raw start-ups, companies conducting basic research, and businesses with a new product or service that is untested in the marketplace.
While the words "venture capital" in Freshstart's name imply a less risk-averse profile, Zelmanovitch, like all financiers, is loath to lose money outright, especially when his firm is on the hook for the funds it borrows.
But don't despair. SBA-licensed investment companies generally have much more verve than banks. The reason, according to Zelmanovitch, is they tend to specialize in a certain type of business or industry. "By doing so, firms such as ours recognize and assign value to collateral that a bank would not," says Zelmanovitch.
Coriolan, for instance, approached Chase Manhattan, Citibank and a credit union for a $350,000 loan package to buy additional equipment plus the building his auto center was in, and was rejected by each.
But Zelmanovitch approved Coriolan's $197,000 loan because he readily accepted a second position on Coriolan's taxicab medallions (an emblem that is affixed to the hood of the cab signifying its license) as collateral, even though Coriolan had almost no personal assets. "Banks generally would not consider medallions as collateral," Zelmanovitch says, "but because we specialize in financing taxicabs, I understand their value and can back a loan with them." Why? If the loan went permanently south, Zelmanovitch could take possession of the medallions and, because of his knowledge of this business, easily get them resold at market prices to pay off the loan.
The ability to resell an asset at or near its market price is one of the key factors that sets SBA investment companies apart from other lenders. For instance, when liquidating a borrower's assets, commercial banks use a fire sale approach to move inventory, equipment or real estate at rock-bottom prices. As a result, when a bank looks to collateralize a loan, it recognizes perhaps only a fraction of an asset's true value.
Follow The Yellow Brick Road
Zelmanovitch says that today there are SBICs and SSBICs that specialize in a wide variety of industries, from broadcasting and franchising to manufacturing, among others. Moreover, this concentration leads to a more aggressive lending style and a greater likelihood that the lending firm will venture where banks will not.
Tracking down SBICs and SSBICs is fairly easy. The National Association of Investment Companies (NAIC) consists of SSBICs as well as other investment companies focusing on minority investments. The NAIC does not have a referral service but sells its directory for $30. You can write to the NAIC at 1111 14th St. N.W., #700, Washington, DC 20005 or call (202) 289-4336.
The National Association of Small Business Investment Companies (NASBIC) is a trade group made up exclusively of SBICs and SSBICs. The NASBIC sells its membership directory for $25. Write to the NASBIC at 666 11th St. N.W., #750, Washington, DC 20001 or call (202) 628-5055.
When you track down an SBIC or SSBIC you're interested in approaching, there is perhaps one other test you might want to be ready for. "We look at every deal on a case-by-case basis," says Zelmanovitch. "Sure, we look for stability, but we also look the person in the eyes to see if we'll get repaid."
Henrick Coriolan, c/o HNV Auto Service Center, 1421 Utica Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11203, fax: (718) 629-5379
Freshstart Venture Capital Corp., 313 W. 53rd St., New York, NY 10019, (212) 265-2249
David R. Evanson, a writer and consultant, is a principal of Financial Communications Associates in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.