When Lisa Bitsky, owner and president of Automated Design Corp., needed a loan in 2011, she headed to her local office of SCORE, a nonprofit that advises small business. A SCORE advisor suggested that her company apply for an SBA Export Express loan, which is guaranteed by the U.S. Small Business Administration. The advisor believed Automated Design Corp. was a good fit, given that it had begun exporting its products to Japan in 1992. Automated Design Corp. builds custom automation, including sports-testing equipment for sporting goods used in golf and basketball and for athletic shoes sold domestically and internationally.
Armed with the paperwork the SCORE advisor had advised her to bring, Bitsky completed the forms within about 30 minutes, and the SCORE officer submitted them to several banks for her. Five days later, she had the $100,000 she requested for her seven-person Romeoville, Ill.-based firm in her account thanks to a loan from Borrego Springs Bank (since acquired by Sterling Financial Corp. in Spokane, Wash.) at a little over 7 percent interest.
While that interest rate was substantial, Bitsky counted herself lucky to get a loan at all during a period when banks were recovering from the Great Recession. “In 2011, to get a $100,000 loan was huge,” recalls Bitsky, who used the funds to develop technology that positioned her business well when economic recovery came. One technology it developed, called GenIV, is used by manufacturers to determine the compression of golf balls in R&D and quality control, says Bitsky. It can also be used to test baseball bats.
Automated Design Corp.—which has generated $1.6 million in annual revenue in recent years and now exports to countries including Australia, Canada, China, Mexico, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and the U.K.—has seen a big boost in growth recently thanks to its investment in R&D. “We are going to set a record this year,” says Bitsky of Automated Design Corp.’s expected 10 percent increase in sales for 2016.
Bitsky is now an enthusiastic supporter of the SBA’s export loan programs. “These people know what they are doing,” she says. “They are truly there to make you succeed.”
If you’re looking for export financing, the SBA’s loan programs for exporters may be worth considering in 2017. These programs provided $6.6 billion in financing to small business exporters during President Obama’s administration, says Marianne Markowitz, regional administrator of the SBA’s Midwest Region. Generally, manufacturing and mining businesses with up to 500 employees and non-manufacturing businesses with up to $7.5 million in annual revenue are eligible for SBA programs, but there are exceptions.
“We would love to help small businesses grow their businesses through exporting,” says Markowitz.
While it isn’t yet clear what President Trump plans to do with the SBA’s loan programs, fixing the U.S. trade deficit was a cornerstone of his campaign, so it will be worth keeping an eye on these programs in coming months.
Here is a guide to the SBA’s programs for exporters as they stand now.
Choose the right program
If you’re looking for financing for your export operations, the SBA offers three main programs that may be able to help you. The SBA Export Express program, which Bitsky used, offers financing up to $500,000, primarily to businesses that have been operating for at least 12 full months. Under the streamlined application process, the SBA promises to evaluate loan applications and provides an approval decision in 36 hours or less. To qualify for an Export Express loan, you must demonstrate that it will allow you to enter a new export market or expand in an existing one.
For exporters who need up to $5 million to fund export transactions, the Export Working Capital Program is also an option. It provides advances against firm purchase orders from foreign buyers or to support foreign accounts receivable. The money can be used to finance supplies, inventory, work in process or production of export goods or services. These loans generally have terms of one year or less but may extend to three years.
A third option is the International Trade Loan Program, which offers loans of up to $5 million for fixed assets and working capital for businesses that plan to start exporting, want to continue exporting or have been adversely affected by competition from imports. Intended to provide long-term financing, International Trade Loans have terms up to 25 years.
Not sure which program is right for you? Markowitz recommends contacting advisors who work with the program, starting with the agency’s Export Assistance Centers (www.sba.gov/managing-business/exporting/us-export-assistance-centers). You can also get help at SCORE (score.org), Small Business Development Centers (americassbdc.org) and Women’s Business Development Centers (wbdc.org). The SBA also runs Export Assistance Centers (www.sba.gov/managing-business/exporting/us-export-assistance-centers), where you can get help.
“I always ask them to go to our counselors first,” says Markowitz. “We can help them understand the requirements of the program and if it’s a good fit.”
To increase your odds of success, potential borrowers can submit their profile through LINC, an online matchmaking system between borrowers and lenders, when you apply. “This profile is put out to all of the lenders in the space,” says Markowitz. “We’ve had a ton of success with that.”
You can also go straight to participating banks for advice. The SBA publishes a list (www.sba.gov/managing-business/exporting/export-loans/export-lenders/export-express-program-lenders), where you may be able to find a local lender eligible for the SBA’s loan guarantees.
Understand what a loan will cost you
When you take out an SBA loan, you will pay both interest and fees. These vary with the program you enter. Given that the Federal Reserve recently raised interest rates, it is important to understand what your costs will be.
For Export Express loans, the interest rate is currently prime plus 6.5 percent for loans up to $50,000. For loans over $50,000, it is prime plus 4.5 percent.
For International Trade Loans, the maximum interest rate for loans with terms of less than seven years ranges from prime plus 2.25 percent for loans over $50,000 to 4.25 percent for loans up to $25,000. For loans with terms of seven years or longer, rates range from prime plus 2.75 percent for loans above $50,000 to prime plus 4.75 percent for loans up to $25,000.
For the Export Working Capital Program, there is no maximum interest rate, but the SBA monitors lenders’ interest rates for “reasonableness.”
To encourage banks to make export loans, the SBA provides loan guarantees. The fees the SBA charges for processing loans are tied to these guarantees.
For Export Express loans, there is a 90 percent guarantee of loans of $350,000 or less and a 75 percent loan for loans greater than $350,000. For both the International Trade Loans and the Export Working Capital Program and International Trade Loans, the guarantee is 90 percent for loans up to $4.5 million. However, there is a maximum guarantee of $4 million for International Trade Loans, compared to $4.5 million for the Export Working Capital Program.
On all three export loans, there are no SBA fees on loans of $150,000 or less. However, for loans above $150,000, there are fees charged on the guaranteed portion of the loans. The fee on the guarantee portion is 3 percent for loans from $150,001 to $700,000, 3.5 percent for those from $700,001 to $1 million and 3.75 percent if it is above $1 million. There is also an annual service fee on all loan sizes of .546 percent on the guaranteed portion of the outstanding balance.
All of the SBA’s export loan programs want owners to have some skin in the game, and to get an export loan, you must provide a personal guarantee. That means you are on the hook personally for your loan if your business cannot pay it back and must put up collateral. “If a loan isn’t paid back we go through liquidation,” says Markowitz. “It’s the same standard as any other bank loan. You assign your personal assets as part of that personal guarantee.”
Bitsky, whose firm brings in about $1.6 million in revenue annually, is aiming to pay off the 10-year loan early, by the end of this year, given the recent interest rate hike. “I know interest rates are going to start creeping up a bit,” says Bitsky. “That one follows prime.”
Try going after a grant
Many business owners don’t know that the SBA provides grants to exporters—yes, money you don’t have to pay back.
The State Trade and Export Promotion (STEP) grant program directs money to individual states, which then provide grants directly to small businesses to help them learn how to export, participate in foreign trade missions and trade shows, obtain services to support foreign market entry, develop websites to attract foreign buyers and design international marketing products or campaigns. To find out if your state participates, go to www.sba.gov/managing-business/exporting/step.
Each participating state has a listing that includes a contact and explains what types of export-related activities are eligible for funding. “It is a very flexible grant,” says Markowitz.
That’s good news for U.S. exporters who must adapt to a trade environment that is apt to be changing very quickly as Trump begins to implement his policies in the months to come.