Say the word "bank" and most of us picture an imposing building with a bunch of faceless tellers. For a successful retailer, though, a bank is more than a place to deposit receipts and cash checks. Indeed, if money is the lifeblood o f your store, your bank is the beating heart that keeps you healthy and vigorous in good times and b ad.

"Banking today goes far beyond its traditional role as a source of loans," says Marilyn J. Holt, principal of Holt Capital, a Seattle based investment advisory firm. "A good banker is involved with all of the movements of your money and will guide you into the best financial programs so you get the most return on y our funds."

Even more, says Holt, good bankers will save you money in service fees, assess the credit-worthin es s of your prospective customers, and advise you on your business health based on your cash flow, balance sheets, assets, receivables and payables. They will also be the knights in shining armor that facilitate transactions critical to your success. For example, they can arrange for fast wire transfers to fund serendipitous buys. At a higher level they can finance your purchase of a competitor when the opportunity arises.

Finally, bankers can enhance your business opportunities by capitalizing on their personal contacts. "Bankers are plugged into the community, whether that be of the business or geographic kind," says Mary Adams, principal of Trek Consulting, Winchester, Mass. "They can be great sources of contacts."

GET PERSONAL

So bankers are great. All you have to do is call them and ask for the service you want, right.

Wrong. To get the job done you need to lay the groundwork by cultivating a personal relationship with your banker, who needs to know and trust you before offering services. "Banking is a people thing," says Holt. "Like so many other aspects of business it thrives on human interaction. Retailers start trending in the wrong direction when they think all they have to do is sell merchandise and not talk to anybody."

Of course, getting up close and personal with your banker takes some work. Remember that a banker has hundreds of customers, so don't wait for your banker to call you. "It's important to be proactive," says John McQuaig, managing partner of McQuaig & Welk, a Wen at chee, Wash.-based management consulting firm. "That alone will put you ahead of 90 percent of the banker's customers." Make a real effort to heighten your profile by presenting your banker w i t h a clear vision and business plan, as well as updates on your financial status and of changes in your business and industry.

CHOOSE YOUR PARTNER

Start by choosing a bank that has a real interest in r et ailing. Ask other retailers for leads. "It's not so much the size of the bank that's important, but rather the size and nature of the client it targets," says Holt. "For st arters you want to pick a bank that specializes in small business. Further, you want one familiar with retailing. Finally, you want to be sur e to get the basket of services you need."

Choosing the right bank is not enough. You also must be proactive in interviewing and selecting a personal banker. "You need to realize that the teller is not your banker," says Holt. "Don't be fooled by the 'merchant teller' sign over the window — that's not their business banking section. That is just someone who can use a coin counter and process credit card receipts."

In contrast, a personal banker will take an interest in your business and know your operation inside and out. That can translate into real benefits. First, when it comes time to borrow money you will get the red-carpet treatment. Second, you will benefit from ongoing analysis of your cash flows and asset levels.

Finally, a personal banker will give you a "heads up" when changes are afoot. For example, you will get an advance warning when your banker is about to leave. That happens often in many small business banking departments where representatives are transient. "These departments are often filled with younger people earning their MBAs," says Holt. "After doing back-office work they have moved into this area for two or three years. Other times these individuals are bankers who are spending the last few years of their career and they really love small business."

In either case, says Holt, you want to make sure you are told when your banker is about to leave and you want a warm handoff to the replacement. Without this comfortable transition your carefully built relationship can collapse like a house of cards. That can be dangerous when a new personal banker does not understand your business and restricts your credit at a time when you may need it most.

COMMUNICATE WELL

As with any good relationship, you want to share your thoughts with your banking partner. "Trouble arises when there is a lack of forthright communication, and therefore misunderstanding between banker and client," says McQuaig. "You want to be upfront and candid with your banker. 'Transparency' would be a good word. Remember that your banker is not someone to be scared of."

Develop a clear vision and a fairly simple business plan, then talk about them with your banker. "If you want to triple sales in the next five years, your banker should know that," says McQuaig. "Then you can determine what your financing will need to be."

Bad things, of course, do happen t o good businesses. While from time to time you will need to prese n t an unexpected problem and suggested solution to your banker, for the most part you should avoid surprises.

"Any surprise is bad for a banker," cautions Adams. "Even if it's a good surprise, bankers worry that if they were surprised by something good they could be surprised next time by something bad."

TAKE ACTION

I t's risky to let your bank relationship slide. Just having a "go to" person for your money is reason enough to attend to your banking r elationship. "Money is the blood in the veins of your business," says Ho lt. "If you don't have someone watching what is going on and working with you, you can get into trouble quickly."

Above all, recognize that your banker is your ally, friend and partner. "Bankers are very much like pets that require care and feeding," says McQuaig. "If you don't take care of them they won't be there when you need them, and you never quite know when that will be."

Get That Loan

So you need some money to carry you through a rough patch. Getting nervous. Most of us do when we are approaching a banker hat in hand.

A good banking relationship, fortunately, can reduce the jitters tremendously. You are much more likely to get your loan if you have laid the groundwork over the years by constantly cultivating a good relationship with your banker.

When you do arrive for your interview, have the necessary information for the banker to make a decision.

Mary Adams, principal of Trek Consulting, Winchester, Mass., suggests having answers to these three questions: First, what do you want to use the money for. Second, how will you pay it back. Third, if that doesn't work, how would you pay it back then?

"That's the way bankers think," she says. "There is always a plan B."