Some conclusions from a recent conference of corporate executives in Montgomery County should be of more than passing interest to the region's financial community, which the executives say is indifferent to their needs.
"Local and regional commercial financial institutions are generally felt to be too cautious in assisting businesses," a blue-ribbon panel of Montgomery County corporate executives concluded.
The panel suggested that the business and financial communities work together "to encourage banks to be more aggressive and more creative in their financing services."
The group's findings and recommendations are part of a report covering a broad range of economic issues discussed during a day-long conference in May. A formal summary of the proceedings was presented earlier this month to County Executive Charles Gilchrist and the county council.
Sponsored by the county's economic advisory council, the conference brought together business and government leaders for a discussion of possible solutions to economic, demographic and social problems that are anticipated over the next decade.
In a discussion of business attraction and expansion, panelists expressed concern over the apparent inability of some business segments to obtain adequate financing. Venture capital funds, for example, "are not readily available to county or even regional firms for the high-technology products or services they develop," conferees said in their report.
Several bank executives observed in recent days that, although they aren't in the venture capital business, they are providing financial services to a large segment of the high-technology industry. Maryland National Bank officials, for example, contend that their institution is extremely "aggressive" in dealing with the hi-tech industry.
On the other hand, "Maybe there's something we are missing," concedes Maryland National's Lawrence Silbernagel, senior vice president in charge of the region that includes Montgomery County.
What most financial institutions in the region apparently are missing is how they are perceived by the hi-tech community. Many executives of hi-tech firms believe local banks and the few venture capital companies in the region have little interest in financing their companies.
When a respected group of corporate executives shares that perception, then it might be worth it for banks to reassess their position -- if not their marketing strategy.
To be sure, there are some exceptions to what is perceived as indifference in the banking community, notes Harvey Kushner, president of ORI Inc., a Silver Spring-based systems and technology research firm.
On the other hand, says Kushner, "My experience is that Washington-area banks are very unaggressive and very conservative. You can contrast that with the West Coast -- the Santa Clara area -- or Boston or Houston, where you've got a very aggressive financial community.
"There are plenty of good examples of happy marriages between venture capital companies and banks and the hi-tech community in Boston and the West Coast."
Kushner, who is a member of the Montgomery County Economic Advisory Committee, said executives who participated in the conference thought the issue of financing hi-tech companies was "worth floating."
"The financial community here sure as hell is no magnet for attracting and keeping hi-tech industries here," said Kushner. "If you want to be in the real estate business, [the banks] will swing with you."
Largely because of their perception of the financial community here, executives from several large hi-tech firms in Montgomery County have established working relationships with banks outside the region. "It isn't just borrowing money," said one. "I'm looking for a lead bank."
Executives from smaller firms claim they have little choice but to seek venture capital and financing for expansion outside the region as well. Indeed, the vice president of a Rockville firm, frustrated over his bank's refusal to provide a loan to finance development of a government contract, says he plans to seek help from a bank or venture capital company outside the region.
"It's the most common subject of crying in your beer at cocktail parties," said the president of a Gaithersburg hi-tech firm that received financing from a foreign source.
Bankers say that many complaints are unfair and that, in some cases, the criticism is just so much sour grapes from would-be borrowers who aren't good credit risks.
That may be. But if the financial community here is perceived as too conservative and unaggressive, competitors from other areas of the country well could benefit from the expected expansion of an already sizable hi-tech industry here.
Kushner points out that it also could mean that "companies are likely to take their businesses elsewhere."