United Overseas Bank (UOB) aims to double loans to South-east Asian small businesses by 2015 and expects strongest loan growth to come from Thailand and Indonesia.
To tap on an expected rise in demand for funding from small businesses, the bank will hire at least 100 relationship managers in the next year, growing its team of regional business bankers by at least 10 per cent.
It also intends to invest in new technology, said Victor Lee, UOB group head of business banking, a unit set up three years ago within its retail bank to serve small businesses - those with an annual turnover of less than $20 million.
In Singapore, UOB has grown its sales force by 50 per cent over the last two years to station business banking managers in all 67 branches.
Mr Lee said it now serves one in every two small businesses in Singapore, which now accounts for half of UOB's business banking revenue.
He thus expects the next phase of growth to come from Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.
Each of the three markets should contribute at least as much as Singapore does to business banking revenue by 2015, Mr Lee said.
Stable economic growth, increased domestic spending and strong intra-regional trade flows are trends he thinks will provide small businesses with opportunities for growth, and UOB with the opportunity to reach new customers.
A rising number of infrastructure projects in Malaysia and Indonesia, reconstruction activities in Thailand, as well as a rise in tourism spending next year may also lift small businesses' need for financing.
In particular, Mr Lee sees "much headroom for growth" via UOB's network of more than 150 branches in Thailand and more than 200 branches in Indonesia.
Apart from investing more in people, the bank will be rolling out in both markets a $15-million credit application tool already in use in Singapore and Malaysia, which has halved loan processing time.
Bank lending growth in general has slowed this year on the back of economic uncertainty, but Mr Lee says there has been some resilience in loans to small businesses.
UOB has seen strong growth in property loans to businesses here due to increased asset ownership - small business owners are choosing to buy instead of rent factories and offices.
"Locally, we are seeing strong growth in property loans because of asset ownership. That growth has outstripped our expectations this year," Mr Lee said.
Elsewhere in the region, the business banking unit's strength has been in equipment financing. "We are seeing customers buying their first tractor, or excavator or truck, or renewing equipment," he said.