Lenders Preach 'Back to Basics'

Published in CSP Daily News

Recession forces financiers to practice more conservative lending,but capitalexists

By  Abbey Lewis, Executive Editor

CHICAGO -- There is no denying growth is on the minds of many the convenience store operator. From single stores looking to expand to two, or the 5,000-or-more-store conglomerate looking to add a couple hundred, if not thousand, more units to their bottom line, acquiring the necessary financing is often a confusing and trying exercise.

"It is clear to me that [financing] would be a hot topic for many people in this room," said Joseph Sheetz, executive vice president of finance for Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz Inc., as he moderated the "Access to Capital" roundtable at the NACS [image-nocss] State of the Industry Summit in Chicago on Thursday.

Participants, including Ray Cleeman of The PrinceRidge Group LLC, New York; Paul Meiring of Prudential Capital Group, Chicago; Keith Roberts of SunTrust Robinson Humphrey, Atlanta; and Dennis Ruben of NRC Realty & Capital Advisors, Chicago, agreed that today's lending environment is a different animal than it was a few years ago. In many ways, it's more like it was before the heady years of 2007-2008 when it seemed the money went to anyone that could grab it fast enough.

Today, Cleeman said, his firm is practicing a "back to basics approach." He said his group was able to finance three operators between October 2008 and July 2009, the lowest point in the market: "We were able to get financing for all of those transactions...we went back to basics. We went to underwriting."

By concentrating on more of the basic issues associated with store financing, such as quality of management, experience of the team, location and a thorough analysis of all line items and inside sales, Cleeman was able to help these retailers out. "A lot of those esoteric parts were lost two to three years ago," he said. "People just want to know: is their capital safe?"

Roberts agrees. He sees the banks his firms work with almost chomping at the bit to lend to the c-store sector. They are "eager to do so," he said. But, he cautioned, "The deals need to make sense. They need to be conservative."

"This is a different industry [than most] in that you have a stable cash flow," said NRC's Ruben, discussing the interest in lending to the c-store channel. "People need what you have to offer."

Other than financials, panel participants outlined specific items that matter to lenders in today's environment:
Relationship with management team. With whom do the banks feel most comfortable. A strong belief in the character of the management team. Consistency of reporting practices. Format of stores, size and age. All agreed: convenience stores are a good investment.

"We love this business," Meiring said. "There are great operators in this business...when we find them, we like to go long with them."Data presented at the NACS State of the Industry Summit was preliminary and derived from company submissions as of March 31. Final industry data will appear in the NACS State of the Industry 2009 Data Report, which can be ordered directly from NACS at www.nacsonline.com.

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