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Voices That Matter: Business Lessons From a Top Banker

This story originally appeared on Business on Main

A common characteristic of fast-growing companies is being able to implement bold ideas throughout the organization. Maria C. Coyne is an executive vice president at KeyBank, the Small Business Administration's 2012 Large 7(a) Lender of the Year. Business on Main caught up with Coyne to learn why KeyBank is becoming an innovative force in small-business banking.

American Banker

Business on Main: What is your job at KeyBank?

Maria C. Coyne: I'm in charge of consumer, small-business and business banking customers with revenues up to $20 million, plus specialized services such as KeyBank mortgages and investment services. I set our strategic direction and make sure our workforce is prepared to meet the needs of our customers.

How does your extensive community-service work influence KeyBank policies?

We have a strong commitment to our communities, which is far more than writing checks to organizations. [It's] showing up and serving on boards and really understanding what makes a community thrive. You need to be out in the community in order to be relevant in business.

What should all business owners expect of their banker?

Business owners should expect their bankers to listen carefully and ask a lot of questions before making decisions or suggestions. This is our commitment to our customers -- to listen.

KeyBank scored highly in a broad range of customer service metrics, including loyalty, in a small-business survey conducted by J.D. Power & Associates. What can entrepreneurs learn from KeyBank in terms of how to build customer loyalty?

Great customer service starts with a leadership commitment to build a culture where customer service is an operating metric. You have to work at it. At Key, we train our staff, measure results and then reward performance. This means that customer service is part of our employee performance reviews. We do believe in the power one person has to make a positive impression on our customers.

Can you tell me about the Key4Women program?

Key4Women is not just a clever marketing program, but a well-planned educational and funding initiative to help women improve their access to capital. In the late '90s, we started looking at the data on women-owned businesses. They were starting and managing fast-growing businesses but not using debt as much as men-owned businesses to help fund business expansion. Through the Key4Women program, women business owners can learn about credit, attend local educational forums and participate in networking events.

Has the Key4Women program been successful in connecting women to capital?

Yes -- very. Since 2005, Key4Women has loaned more than $6 billion to women-owned businesses. In 2009, amid the worst recession since the Depression, we made a new commitment to loan $3 billion to women-owned businesses by 2012. We met that goal in late 2011.

Another measure of our success is Key4Women membership. Since 2007, membership has grown by an average of 39 percent a year. We expect 2012 membership growth to be even larger as a result of Twitter and Facebook social engagement.

Since the credit crisis, the Small Business Administration has tightened many of its requirements regarding collateral, personal credit scores and equity contributions of business founders. How does a large bank grow its small-business portfolio in this environment?

Key is one of 13 banks that pledged to loan $20 billion to small businesses between October 2011 and 2014. Key pledged to lend $5 billion and surpassed that pledge this summer. Our approach to working with small businesses is not to just say no to a loan request but to spend time with business owners to explain what they need to do to improve their credit position and loan application. We've also noticed that businesses have gotten smarter about where they can make money, too.

Credit cards are typically the first form of debt that startup entrepreneurs and small businesses use to fund business operations. Where do credit cards fit into Key's lending portfolio?

Credit cards can be very useful to business owners, provided that they're used responsibly. Small-business credit cards can also help business owners demonstrate a history of successfully paying business obligations with business funds rather than personal funds. It's a good stepping stone.

Last question: What drew you to a career in banking?

I'm hesitant to admit this, but I loved to play banker as a child. It was fun. I would get blank deposit slips from a local bank and deposit Monopoly money at a teller window that I made up in the basement of our house. It was clearly a calling. It's where my heart is. Even during these challenging times in our industry, I'm proud to be a banker.

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