In Chattanooga, Cuntin Lawrence, vice president of Patway Credit Lender, has worked for decades in banking, nonprofit leadership and service. In his new role with Pathway, Lawrence assists small businesses who may not be eligible for regular funding to build their businesses to get loans and training.
“I have always found that in these roles I have tried to support financial growth in communities where consensus is not a problem,” Lawrence said. “Being able to help people in some of the most important areas of their lives, when you talk about money and finances, that really puts that front and center. It binds a good ribbon on all those experiences.”
This interview has been edited for a long time and with clarity.
Q is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). What does it mean to support business owners?
D We are not a traditional lender. We are a mission-based lender. We have specific groups and target markets that we can try to accommodate and operate without discriminating against anyone else. There are barriers for minorities, especially African Americans and women and veterans, as well as for capital. The Pathway approach is to make sure there are no missed opportunities – this is our motto.
Q: Who is a regular customer?
D Most individuals have 500 or fewer employees and very small business owners. We have the potential to work not only with small business owners but also with medium-sized businesses. There is a lot we can do, but our sweet spot is working with small business owners whose income may not be strong enough to accommodate a traditional lender. Banks are regulated at the federal level, so they must comply with their limits. Some business owners have difficulty getting that money because of debt consolidation issues. When it comes to credit score, the first step is to see if you can move forward with it. For us, though, it does not matter.
Q: What other things do you weigh?
D One of the big reasons is the background of that business owner – do they have industry experience, do they have business management experience? He may not have been in the business, but he worked as a manager, working with profits and losses. We look at revenue, we look at that cash flow. If they were accepted, would they be large enough to cover that obligation and still have some space for emergencies? Another thing for us, and I think this is very important, of course, in the five CSs. The first four characteristics, capital, hold, conditions – personal and business conditions. The fifth person is to be a coach. That is not only one of the major differences between us and a traditional lender, but we also provide educational resources and entrusted funds to run that business. So not only from my lender but also from our technical advisory team? Will they take coaching from us to put their business in a place where it can be grown and evaluated? First, I listen to see where they are. Is there clarity and curiosity? I do not care how long you have been in business, you always learn something new. This will keep you humble and hungry to learn more and do better. When you have someone who is willing to take that trip with you, that really speaks volumes about that entrepreneur’s character and adaptation, and you might be fine.
Q: What kind of financial support do the loans provide?
D It could be buying equipment – a landscaping company that needs new lawns and garden tools. It could be a small manufacturer looking to buy a utility. I also talked to a few people when they were trying to buy an existing business. It is a vast collection of interests and questions. We open the door wide to be flexible with anyone who comes to us for help. If you find yourself in a situation where you feel you have to relinquish control of your life to someone else, you probably do not know how to deal with it.
Q: How do you work with all other existing resources, such as CO.LAB, Chattanooga Launch or Tennessee Small Business Development Center?
D Those partnerships are crucial. Many of the companies I worked with in my past are working here on economic development. It is important that we have that relationship because they know me and I know what they are doing. We are not here to compete or to do anything and everything. I mentioned some of these providers. If they do not have the financial information or direction they need for their business, our point is not to say, ‘No, we can’t help you,’ but to say, ‘Let’s go back a step and see what they want. Make it meaningful. ‘ We have no problem saying to those partners, ‘This person is at this stage, and we want to make sure that they are in a position to do this work before we go any further.’ I relied heavily on some partners, and it was great.
Q: Can you share an example of success story?
D I have a business client, a young woman with embroidery. After giving birth to her children, she started making custom-made items and her friends saw them and said, ‘That is beautiful’ and she came up with Sew Pretty Designs. She found herself making custom furniture for baby showers, but she was part of a sorority and started making custom furniture for soti and was licensed to make materials for them and thought maybe she could do the same for other artists. She had some tools, but she needed a lot to produce at the level she wanted to grow the business. She only worked for one year, and you need to be in business with a traditional lender for two years. She was really young, and she had an income but she didn’t know exactly where the traditional lender was. We are able to finance the equipment you need and provide business consulting services – an internal consultant who works with us on loan life.
Q: What does it take to make all this happen?
D I definitely don’t want to make it seem like I’m doing this myself. My focus is on the lender and connecting these individuals to the financial support they need. We have Cathy Hendrick, Vice President of Customer Development from CO.LAB and Kiva. [loan program], And the combination of the two of us is good for the success of what will happen here. She is very supportive of the steps she takes to build the support needed for those entrepreneurs and their businesses to truly thrive. Between the two of us, our right and left hands work together to bring the lead, making sure there are no missed opportunities. We truly thank our bank partners. The Chattanooga Small Business Opportunity Fund is a $ 7.5 million loan from Pinnacle, Regions, First Horizon for the Chattanooga and Hamilton County area. We truly appreciate the banking partners who have not been able to do it themselves, but these institutions have decided to invest in Pathway.