“First County never really stopped lending to small business during that time,” Giallongo said. “What we did is start asking more questions. … But it was really all around business confidence. The market in small business was soft because they really didn’t know at the time what the next turn of events would be in the marketplace.”

Statistics on First County’s lending levels in recent years were not immediately available.

Professional advice

More than ever, small businesses need to develop cogent business plans to position themselves for financing, said Tony Peters, a business adviser with the Connecticut Small Business Development Center based at the University of Connecticut in Stamford.

“At the end of the day, will the idea make money or sense?” Peters said. “It sounds simple, and it is simple. But you need to lay it out and think about it and be clear. Is this something people are willing to pay for? And if the answer is no, it could be the greatest idea in the world, but it’s just not bankable.”

Many local business owners said that they have banded together more to share advice and direct each other to promising leads for financing.

“We always advise people: Don’t take any actions until you get professional advice,” said David Yika, who runs a pet grooming business, K-9 Coiffures, and serves as a vice president in the Greater Stamford Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “We always want to direct people to the right institution so they can get customized information.”

In Hartford, state officials have sought in recent years to create new funding sources to supplement banks’ support of small businesses. The state launched in 2012 the Small Business Express program, which provides loans and grants to businesses that have operated for at least a year and have fewer than 100 employees.

“It’s surprising how frequently we still hear from small businesses that they can’t get access to capital from their bank,” said Catherine Smith, the state’s economic and community development commissioner. “There’s still a need for Small Business Express to be filling gaps for companies that can’t get quite enough capital or can’t get any additional capital.”

Small Business Express has distributed about $8 million in grants and loans to 50 Stamford businesses in the past five years. The state conditioned that aid on those firms together retaining 475 jobs and creating another 200 positions.

Long-term strategy

Bankers and state officials said that they will continue to make small businesses’ access to capital a top priority in coming years.

Assuming the economy continues to improve, Small Business Express might not carry on indefinitely, though it would likely keep running in the next few years.

“It’s on the list of programs that we say ‘let’s keep it going and moving forward,’” Smith said. “It’s been very successful.”

State officials should not overlook other funding sources, said Gary Breitbart, director of The Business Council of Fairfield County’s growth advisory services initiative.

“There are a number of favorable programs that ought to be continued and grown, but we also want to see other forms of support to grow the roster of investors,” Breitbart said. “There is more that can be done to expand the number of venture capital funds and private equity funds that are active here in Connecticut.”

But banks will remain a dominant source of funding for small businesses. First County Bank’s Ferguson, who once owned a trucking and car hauling firm, said he wants to strengthen First County’s relationships with business organizations and help more small businesses to develop plans.

“Being a business development officer, I’m out there a lot — talking to them, looking at their business models, looking at the way they handle their payroll and their staffing model,” Ferguson said. “There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to a business — not just a loan.”

pschott@scni.com; 203-964-2236; twitter: @paulschott  By Paul Schott | August 14, 2016