Bees are Bill Walter's business.
Walter removes and relocates swarms from homes and later tends the bees for their wildflower honey, which he sells through his company, Guerilla Beekeepers, along with beeswax-based products such as lip balm and body moisturizer.
Up until 18 months ago, Walter oversaw his growing venture out of his home garage in Silverado Canyon in Southern California. But thanks to a $15,000 loan from natural and organic foods grocer Whole Foods Market, the former Web designer was able to buy new gear, including additional bee suits and hive boxes.
That financial help also made it possible for him to move to a larger space, a 2,400-square-foot warehouse in Santa Ana, Calif. The loan was "that little extra kick he needed," said Walter, 49. "We wanted to expand, but we couldn't do it without [the loan.]"
Walter is one of 150-plus independent business owners nationwide who have received funding through Whole Foods' program, which since 2007 has supported emerging companies that make local products with loans ranging from $1,000 to $100,000.
The grocery chain so far has issued roughly $10 million in loans, at rates ranging from 5 percent to 9 percent, and recently committed to an additional $15 million in funding. Loans issued in 2012, the most recent year for which numbers were available, averaged a little more than $50,000, while the average interest rate was 5.4 percent.
Whole Foods' expansion of its loan program comes at a time when traditional bank lending continues to decline. The value of U.S. commercial loans of $1 million or less, considered a small-business loan, was nearly $285 billion in the third quarter, based on the latest federal data on federally insured banks. That's a 13 percent drop from six years ago.
Also, the average size of small-business loans backed by the government has grown over the years, suggesting that fewer smaller firms that want small-dollar loans may be getting help. The drop in traditional lending and the rise of U.S. Small Business Administration loan sizes have in recent years prompted the rise of alternative lending. E-commerce site PayPal recently entered the market.
Whole Foods' loans are not exclusive to its vendors, but such a relationship is preferred, the application says. What is required is collateral, which offsets some of the company's risk.
"We already know what kind of supplier they are," said Dwight Detter, a Whole Foods buyer. "There is some track record so that we can help project with them."