* Bank hiring 150 specialists, could double that
* Will focus on businesses with sales under C$5 mln
* Analysts see business-driven revenue growth (Adds background, interview with commercial banking head)
By Cameron French
TORONTO, March 30 (Reuters) - Bank of Montreal (BMO.TO), Canada’s fourth-largest lender, is targeting the Canadian small business segment as it hopes to offset an expected slump in personal loan growth.
The bank is in the process of adding 150 small-business banking specialists that will focus on business with sales under C$5 million ($5.2 million).
Gail Cocker, BMO’s head of commercial banking, said in an interview on Wednesday that number could rise to 300 in the near future as the bank moves further into the sector.
“This is a large and growing segment that has unique needs that we need to pay attention to and understand, and within that size group itself there’s a lot of opportunity,” she said.
Cocker said small business activity accounts for a about 30 percent of Canadian GDP, giving it a high ceiling for opportunity, particularly as growth in personal loans and mortgages is expected to slow. Analysts and bank executives say they expect business loan growth to be partially fill the gap.
“We know that the small business segment is really important to the Canadian economy. It creates tons of jobs and there are growth opportunities there,” she said.
She said the banking services provided to the small business owners well go well beyond simple financing.
“They need solutions for managing their cash, for helping them to have better reporting for their tax filing and that sort to thing,” she said. “How do they collect faster? How do they pay easier? It’s a whole bundle of solutions that we can help them with.”
BMO’s core business is its Canadian personal and commercial bank, but it has also been aggressively expanding in the United States, most recently with a $4.1 billion takeover of Wisconsin lender Marshall & Ilsley MI.N launched last fall.
The bank also has a growing presence in China.
For the small business push, BMO has already hired 60 specialists in British Columbia and is in the process of hiring 90 more in Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces throughout this year.
“Our intention is that this is a multiyear initiative, so I can see that doubling, easily doubling in the nearer term,” she said.
“It’s a fairly significant commitment to this marketplace.”
$1=$0.97 Canadian Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson