Panel confirms Mainer as small business chief

Posted April 01, 2009, at 9:46 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Brunswick resident Karen Gordon Mills was poised to become administrator of the nation’s Small Business Administration Wednesday after she pledged to free up credit for struggling firms and fund programs to stimulate innovation at this time of economic crisis.

Mills, who appeared before the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, answered questions for more than an hour on what role the Small Business Administration should take in the Obama administration. The committee later confirmed her unanimously.

She could receive full Senate approval by week’s end.

Mills said she would focus on encouraging businesses owned by minorities, women and veterans while expanding the number of banks willing to dispense loans backed partially by the government. Statistics on business growth and job creation will be vital to judging the SBA’s success, she said.

“I’m a metrics-oriented person,” Mills said. “I’m looking for ways of using those kinds of metrics so that we know what kind of progress we’re making.”

Mills is a former private equity trader who moved to Maine in 2001 when her husband, Barry Mills, became president of Bowdoin College. She is a graduate of Harvard College and has an MBA from Harvard Business School.

“Ms. Mills’ entrepreneurship is quite literally in her blood,” Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said. “Her grandfather was a box supplier for Tootsie Roll and during the Great Depression took over a controlling interest in the company, which he later passed on to his family, and by the way it’s still run by her parents.”

Mills’ father, Melvin Gordon, 89, is the chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Tootsie Roll Industries, and her mother, Ellen Gordon, 77, is the president and chief operating officer of the company, according to Forbes.com

Mills co-founded the New York-based investment firm Solera Capital in 1999. In 2007, Gov. John Baldacci named her chairwoman of the Maine Council on Competitiveness and the Economy. She also served as president of the investment firm MMP Group in Brunswick.

During Wednesday’s confirmation hearing, Snowe renewed her call for the administrator of the SBA to be re-elevated to a cabinet level position, as it was during the Clinton administration, but Mills avoided calling for her own promotion, saying only that she would increase the agency’s involvement in the economy.

Snowe also criticized federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, for not meeting their small disadvantaged businesses contracting requirements, which usually amount to less than 5 percent of an agency’s total spending. After bringing up the topic in several hearings, Snowe said she hopes a new SBA with a higher stature can steer those contracts back to the female- and minority-owned companies for which they were intended.

“This is money that is going to be spent by the federal government,” Snowe said after the hearing. “It’s not as if we have to spend more.”

Mills said, “Sometimes agencies don’t know how to buy from small businesses,” but said she would encourage them to contract with smaller firms. She also pledged to make the SBA more accessible “on the front-end” by making borrowing “more paperless and more seamless.”

Answering a question from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., on what constitutes a small business, Mills said she would remain conscious of the administration’s mission to help small businesses, but does not want to risk crowding out promising businesses.

“There are at least two kinds of businesses served by the Small Business Administration,” Mills said in her opening statement. “The first are the small businesses on Main Street. The second are high-growth, high-impact businesses, which have the potential to grow into the next American giants.”

Snowe said the stimulus provisions designed to aid small businesses are not being implemented fast enough to save Main Street companies on the brink of bankruptcy and called for certain loan incentives and government contracts with small business to go into effect within a month.

“Make sure that these provisions are implemented very quickly,” Snowe said. “It truly does concern me that we won’t do the things that these programs are designed to accomplish quickly and immediately.”

Small businesses make up 97 percent of Maine firms, according to Snowe, the senior Republican on the committee.

Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, praised Mills as “an ideal candidate” to lead the agency charged with supporting small businesses.

“Now is the time to strengthen the SBA so that it can be a robust part of our economic recovery,” Michaud said in a statement. “I look forward to Karen’s leadership in reviving this agency’s mission to provide small businesses the capital, counseling and advocacy that they need.”

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