Taking it to the Bank

      One in a series, looking at the relationships between woodworking companies and the businesses they deal with. 1998.

by Anthony Noel

The third in a series about business-to-business relationships discusses the importance of choosing a bank you trust.

I hear pretty frequently from woodworkers who are mostly satisfied with their work, but are facing a particular challenge in one area or another.

Invariably, their concern upon contacting me is more of a business than technical nature.

One such woodworker is Heinz, a longtime cabinetmaker form 'the Old Country.' Heinz often speaks highly of the apprenticeship system in his native Germany and is scornful of the lack of business training provided by schools in this country. He has a point. With the advent of corporate downsizing, I've met and worked worked with several people who have turned to woodworking after losing their 'real' jobs - only to discover that it doesn't get any more real than this.

Whether formerly employed as engineers, middle managers or in one of the myriad disciplines which have seen declines in the workforce in recent years, these new woodworkers are - with good reason - echoing Heinz' concerns: 'All those years in school and what did I learn?'

Still, I feel that's a little harsh. Starting a business, like anything else, puts you squarely on a learning curve, regardless of the amount of classroom instruction you may have had. The funny thing about woodworking, however, it the sheer number of people who decide to give it a try.

Among the 'downsized,' woodworking tends to have been a hobby which became the obvious choice for making a few dollars while looking for a new job. Then, one project led to another and, well, suddenly you're in business. You can make your own hours, though they're always longer than you might like, but you can also hit the golf course or tennis court on a nice afternoon which, in your former life, would have found you slaving over a crowded desk without possibility of play time.

The point here is simply this: While learning all you can about the 'ins and outs' of any business is always a good idea, you'll retain those lessons at a much higher rate when you are learning
them - or literally paying for them - with your own time and money. So if you feel a little lost, take heart in knowing that it's normal to feel that way from time to time, and that the best approach varies from working through the problem on your own to seeking the help of others who have expertise in the areas where you are challenged.

Your banker can be one such resource. When we discussed the formulation of a business plan last month, it was pointed out that your plan can be important in garnering capital - be it start-up or operating - for your business. Just as important, however, is whether you feel comfortable with your bank.

I harbor a basic distrust of large banking institutions. If you want to feel nameless, just walk into any branch of any big regional bank. If you feel like the employees are taking bets on how high you'll be willing to jump to secure a loan, that's because they probably are. (If they were actually working instead, you might not have to pay a transaction fee at the bank's ATMs.)

Anyway, find a bank where you a treated like a valuable customer and where, upon asking for the best type of checking account for your business, the account manager gives you a fair appraisal of each of their options and advises you on which may be the most cost-effective for you. If the advice makes sense, you've probably picked a winner.

If, conversely, you feel like you're being pushed into a direction that you don't want to go, excuse yourself and renew your search.

Remember: Banks are businesses. (Repeat it with me: Banks are businesses....banks are businesses.) And like any other business, they want to make money! That's OK, but ask yourself, 'How far would I get with a customer if I treated him or her this way?'

If a bank were a car dealership (another favorite institution of mine), the branch manager would be the equivalent of the sales manager (you know, the guy that the salespeople keep taking 'offers' back and forth to until you've reached the bone they are dangling at the moment, for fun and profit).

In our analogy, the assistant branch manager is the top salesperson, the new accounts manager is also skilled in sales and the tellers want each of the previously discussed person's jobs.

I'm not usually this cynical. But it pays, literally, to remember that even a car dealership has a service department. The person who fixes your car is different from the person who sells you the car. At the bank, however, you're going to be working on the financial aspect of your business with the same people who sell you the services the bank offers. Be sure they emanate a genuine concern for your company and whether or not they offer what you need.

Your bank can also be a good channel through which to meet other businessmen who may have successfully navigated some of the same financial waters you will face. It's not a bad idea to ask the bank for a reference or two and to take the time to get the opinions of other customers.

That word, 'customer,' is the operative one as we continue to discuss the relationships we establish with other businesses. Avoid the tendency to feel as if, just because you are already in business yourself, you are any less a customer to the firms from which you buy.

Whether you're buying banking services, insurance, lumber, hardware, machinery or anything else, remember: You are the customer, you are buying a product, and you should be treated as you treat your customers when they are seeking a product from you, that is, with care and attention to detail.

Anthony Noel writes, consults, and teaches woodworking and journalism, along with doing an occasional custom job in his shop in Macungie, PA.

Have a business related question? Visit WOODWEB's Business Forum. The Business Forum is co-sponsored by ISWonline and is moderated by Anthony Noel. All business topics are welcome, from sales and marketing to dealing with difficult customers.

This article is reprinted by permission of Custom Woodworking Business Magazine.

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