PORTLAND, Maine — As companies around the country seek to shake off the recession and grow, the Small Business Administration is bringing on new and different lenders to provide them with capital, the head of that federal agency said Friday.
Karen Mills, a Brunswick resident and administrator of the SBA, noted that her agency backed a record number of loans in 2011, hitting a total of $30.5 billion. Mills, speaking at the Portland Regional Chamber’s Eggs and Issues breakfast Friday, noted that there were still some capital areas that need work — specifically, small loans of $250,000 or less in underserved markets.
To address that need, she said, the SBA opened up its loan guarantee program to mission-based and community lenders. Three groups applied for the program in Maine and were approved, she said, Coastal Enterprises Inc., the Eastern Maine Development Corp., and the Northern Maine Development Corp.
Further opening access to capital is one way the Obama administration hopes to prod the economy toward growth. Another is through the president’s payroll tax cut proposal, which is aimed at both consumers and businesses, said Mills.
“That is important — if we want to come out of this recession, small businesses have to grow,” said Mills. “They’re not going to grow unless they have confidence. As I said to the president, the thing that gives small businesses confidence is cash in the balance sheet.”
Mills, a former venture capitalist, worked on economic development in Maine at the request of former Gov. John Baldacci until she was tapped by President Barack Obama in 2009 to head up the SBA. Last week, Obama elevated the SBA administrator position to a Cabinet-level post, giving Mills a seat at the table with his top advisers.
“I had a good week in Washington, as you might imagine,” said Mills. “It was a week ago today that the president asked me to be a part of his Cabinet.”
Mills said she was flattered by the elevation, and by comments made about her work by the state’s congressional delegation. However, what flattered her the most, she said, were the news headlines calling her a “Mainer.” Mills moved to Maine in 2001 when her husband, Barry Mills, took over as president of Bowdoin College.
“For those of us who are from away, we know there is no greater compliment than even for a small moment to be called a Mainer,” said Mills.
Mills noted that Maine had 620,000 jobs before the recession, and dropped to 590,000 after. Maine, she said, is never hit as hard in a downturn as many other states, but also never experiences the highs that other states do.
She said in addition to pushing for payroll tax cuts and increased capital flow, the administration has an infrastructure proposal on the table, which would mean $200 million in projects for Maine.
“$200 million in Maine is a big number — that’s the kind of investment we have to make now in order to continue to grow our companies here and make sure we’re competitive in places like Maine,” she said.
Mills said when she worked on economic development in Maine, she focused on building support for economic clusters — infrastructure and ties within specific sectors. A boat building cluster, making use of the state’s companies and composites technology infrastructure, was successful, she said.
“We used to be shoes and pulp and textiles, now we’re boat builders and disability insurers, and food — there’s a great food cluster,” said Mills. “We have blueberries, we have potatoes, we have seafood.”
She’s taking that same strategy in the work the SBA is doing nationally, she said. If you build the foundation for small business, give them the tools they need to be entrepreneurial, the skills, advice, capital and clusters, they can go forward and create jobs, she said.
“That’s how America is going to compete in the 21st century,” she said.
Wendy Wolf, president and CEO of the Maine Health Access Foundation, asked Mills about what the SBA was doing to make health care more affordable — a big limitation on growth, she added.
Mills said the administration’s Affordable Care Act does contain tax credits for small businesses, but noted that they were too complicated. She’s working with Health and Human Services and the Treasury Department to try to simplify them, she said.
But the real payoff, she said, would be the health insurance exchanges in each state. Today, she said, small businesses pay an average of 18 percent more for insurance than do big businesses, for the same coverage.
There has been no marketplace for small businesses to pool risk and seek competition for their insurance business, Mills said. The exchanges will provide that marketplace, and lower costs, Mills asserted.
David Barber, CEO of Barber Foods in Portland, noted that he had worked with Mills’ office when new U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations threatened the company. Mills’ staff worked with Barber and the USDA to tweak the regulations so the company would be able to continue operations.
“Our outcome was terrific, we actually became a poster child of how industry and government can work together to create something better,” said Barber.
Mills said a year and a half ago a new executive order required that agencies issue regulations specifically detail how they will not adversely affect small businesses, or note how they are being made flexible for small businesses.
She encouraged businesses who have a problem with a specific regulation to contact her office. Part of the responsibilities of the SBA, she said, was to ensure that unintended consequences of regulations don’t harm small business.
“That’s what we’re about,” she said.