By Rebekah Metzler
April 2, 2009
Karen Gordon Mills of Brunswick received the unanimous support of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee following a public hearing Wednesday on her nomination to head the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Mills, a venture capitalist who served on President Barack Obama's SBA transition team, was a founding partner of Solera Capital, a New York-based equity firm. She also served as the chairwoman of Gov. John Baldacci's Council on Competitiveness and the Economy. Her husband, Barry Mills, is president of Bowdoin College.
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe said she and Mills are "fast friends" who always talk about small business.
"Over time, she became more involved at the state level," Snowe said. "She brings the in-depth knowledge and practical experience, which is often missing in government."
Snowe, the top Republican on the Senate Small Business Committee, and her Maine colleague, Sen. Susan Collins, a former SBA New England Administrator, recommended Mills for the job of SBA administrator.
The Small Business Administration is charged with protecting the interests of small business by guaranteeing loans and providing additional assistance to businesses recovering from natural disasters.
Though funding for the SBA was cut by more than 25 percent under the Bush administration and was demoted from the Cabinet status it enjoyed under the Clinton administration, small businesses will play a large role in the country's economic recovery, Mills said during the hearing.
"There are over 26 million small businesses in this country and they create 70 percent of the new jobs," she said. "This means that to find our way out of the current economic crisis, we have to find ways to help small businesses stay in operation, and even expand."
Mills said taking advantage of the provisions for small businesses written into the massive economic stimulus package would be a top priority.
"(The stimulus) reduces fees to both borrowers and lenders, increases the guarantee percentage on SBA loans and works to unfreeze the secondary markets," she said. "In addition, many viable but struggling businesses will get a $35,000 lifeline to bridge them for six months of interest and principal payments - which the SBA will fully guarantee."
One of the few critics of Mills' nomination is Lloyd Chapman, president of the American Small Business League, a group he founded to improve oversight of federal small business contracting programs.
Chapman said real flaws exist with how government contracts are awarded to small businesses, and that should be the first issue a new SBA administrator addresses.
Chapman, who has been campaigning against the SBA as an entity for years, said he didn't know Mills and hadn't met her.
"But I don't think she cares about small business," he said Wednesday. "She has zero experience working with companies with less than 20 employees."
Snowe said Mills gained an understanding of the challenges facing rural small businesses while researching and working with the Brookings Institution to compose the 2006 report "Charting Maine's Future."
Mills also spent years directly overseeing the restructuring of several small manufacturing businesses during the early 1990s while working for a private equity firm, Snowe said.
Baldacci said he was impressed with how Mills was able to relate to dairy farmers, fishermen and top executives of multimillion-dollar companies while working on the report.
"She didn't just sit on a board; she went out and met with everyone and listened to what they had to say," Baldacci said. "She's able to engage people and to her credit, she did it on her own initiative."
Baldacci said it would help Maine to have another voice speaking to, and for, the Obama administration.
"She'll be sitting with the president and the rest of his economic team, and that is important," he said.