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Union Bank & Trust’s Catalyst Initiative goes to work for small businesses

Stephanie Dinger and Tullen Mabbutt of Catalyst.

Startups often find it challenging to convince traditional lenders to invest in their companies. Through an initiative called Catalyst, Union Bank & Trust in Lincoln is working to change that.

“As FinTech continues to blow up, how do we use some of the new thought processes for underwriting?” said Tullen Mabbutt, Catalyst Business Banking Advocate. “We’re approaching it with an innovative mind set.”

Catalyst is best known for its meeting and conference space in Lincoln’s Haymarket District, available for use free of charge by startups and entrepreneurs. But Mabbutt says it’s much more than that.

“One of the wins is connecting people. That’s what we look to do a lot,” he said. “We connect them to the startup community at large and all the resources that exist outside of what we do.”

Consulting and educational programs for startups and entrepreneurs are also available.

“We do a lot of education out of the space,” Mabbutt said. “Workshops for entrepreneurs, lunch-and-learn speaker series, stuff like that.”

Catalyst has strong support from the company’s ownership, and leadership from Stephanie Dinger, Union Bank’s Vice President of Small Business. Dinger is also an entrepreneur, co-owner of Lincoln startup Powerhook with husband Eric.

“I’m a banker but also a business owner,” she said. “I’ve been able to bring a unique perspective that gives me credibility with people because I can see both sides.”

Having two people dedicated to small businesses and a willingness to look at small – and sometimes risky – deals is unusual in the banking industry.

“I’ve worked with a lot of different bankers over the years,” Dinger said. “Most banks route through commercial lenders who like larger deals.”

So why, in a traditionally conservative industry, is Union Bank taking this on?

“It’s a long-term play for sure,” Dinger said. “We have the ability because ownership believes in the community. They will look at things that others won’t.”

Community building is an important aspect of the Catalyst initiative. But there are business reasons as well.

“We want to start that relationship,” Mabbutt said. “It may not pay off today or tomorrow, but we raise the tide for all boats. That comes directly from our ownership.”

Dinger doesn’t keep regular bankers’ hours, which builds loyalty.

“My job’s not 8 to 5 because that’s not when they’re thinking about their banking,” she said. “I’m going to devote hours and lose money because I know they will be loyal to me. I’ve had customers say ‘I will be a lifer with you regardless of where I go’.”

Being accessible and taking the time to listen is key.

“New companies are craving information, empathy and knowledge,” Dinger said. “That’s been the most fun part. The value I add to a $10,000 deal is priceless.”

Sometimes a bank loan isn’t the best option, and Catalyst often provides referrals to other resources.

“We’re not pressured that much as bankers so we’re able to stand still, listen to them and review all their options even if it’s not bank debt,” Mabbutt said. “We’ll say ‘here’s what we can do’ and take the extra step to call someone like Community Development Resources or Invest Nebraska.”

Mabbutt has seen the startup community in Lincoln blossom since Catalyst opened, and growing collaboration with Omaha.

“Omaha and Lincoln have grown with the number of companies and resources between the two communities,” he said. “The landscape continues to change, and there are a number of pockets that are undiscovered.”

And an awareness is developing of what the Silicon Prairie is all about.

“It’s interesting when I talk to people totally outside the tech startup scene,” Mabbutt said. “People know what the Silicon Prairie is. Now it’s a thing even if people can’t put their finger right on it.”

Rod Armstrong is Vice President of Strategic Partnerships for AIM in Lincoln, Nebraska. He is a regular contributor to Silicon Prairie News.

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