By Laura Petrecca
August 30, 2010
As head of the Small Business Administration, Karen Mills assists small businesses with counseling, financing and access to government contracts.
She also has to deal with uncertainty about how much the SBA will be able to help those companies. A small-business aid bill stalled this summer in the Senate, and a final vote won't come until Congress reconvenes in two weeks.
"We have many problems to solve," says Mills, 56.
Reporter Laura Petrecca spoke with Mills about small-business lending, her plans to reinvigorate the SBA and what it's like to be the daughter of the folks who control the Tootsie Roll candy-making empire. Following are excerpts, edited for clarity and length.
Q: Why is small-business expansion such a big deal?
A: Small businesses are really the
engine in the economy. (They produce about) 65% of net job growth. Half of the people who work in this country own or work for a small business. Right now, the government's role is to give them more support, more momentum, because government isn't going to create the jobs; small business is going to create the jobs.
Q: What are the most pressing issues facing small-business owners?
A: They worry about making sure that they are going to have a stable access to capital. They are saying, "I need capital to take that next order." They look at their business plans, and they want to make sure that they are prepared to move forward.
Q: What are the agency's top priorities?
A: We call it the three C's — capital is one of them. The second one is counseling. Small businesses, you can give them capital, but what they often need as much is mentoring, advice and help with their business plan. We actually have (about) 900 Small Business Development Centers around the country. They're getting the small-business owner to rethink their business plan to meet these economic times. They're getting them to a community bank and access to capital that might help them. The third C is contracting. At the SBA, we're responsible for making sure that 23% of all government contracts go to small business. Our job is to provide access and opportunity.
Q: After months of debate, Congress still hasn't voted on the latest small-business aid bill, which is designed to spur lending and reduce loan fees. How is this affecting small businesses?
A: We had a very, very successful Recovery Act loan program. We were able to step in and provide a lot of access to capital when credit markets froze in 2008. (But) we ran out of money, and the supplement to that program is in this small-business jobs package.
The Recovery Act provisions ran out (at the end of May). We were still offering our regular loan packages, but our (lending) volume dropped 60% in (June).
Q: The SBA has taken a lot of heat for giving big business too many of the contracts designated for smaller firms. Has that been a challenge for you?
A: We came in and really took that on as a key objective. We are not going to be the agency where large businesses can masquerade as a small business and get a contract. We are closing down on fraud, waste and abuse. We have a three-pronged effort. Upfront, we're making sure that those who are supposed to be certified in the program are small businesses — that they are who they are supposed to be. In the middle, we are checking on them. We do thousands of site visits and audits. The third thing is that we're going after the bad actors, and we're seeing results.
Q: In 2007,your agency was at the bottom in the list of 30 federal agencies reviewed in American University's Best Places to Work study, but moved up to 26 in 2009. What have you done to improve morale?
A: This is a big priority for us. We are investing in our people and our information technology. I travel all around the country, and every place I go, I go see our district offices and our people we have out there. We have a full team that is working on what we call becoming a high-performance agency, breaking down silos, having strong communications and training. We are looking at training people to help them grow and have the tools they need to do their job. We're a small agency with a big mission, and the mission is more and more important. We need to invest in our people.
Q: Your previous job was president of private-equity investor and adviser firm MMP Group. What are the main differences in working there and this government job?
A: Some of the things are the same and some of the things are different. What is the same is that most of my work life — at least the last 30 years — I've been involved in growing small businesses. I've owned and invested in small businesses (from companies that make plastic injection molding to wood flooring), so that's my base. What's different is instead of doing it one by one, we have the opportunity to help tens of thousands of small businesses. That is extraordinarily exciting and rewarding.
Q: As someone who invested in businesses, you had to evaluate a company's potential for success. What makes a business owner stand out?
A: With the successful ones, you can almost feel it when you're in a room with them. These are people who both have a vision and are thoughtful about their plan. They know where to reach out for help. They are visionary, inspired, passionate and pragmatic. The successful ones tend to build on their success. They'll get counseling help; they'll reach out for exporting help. They'll be looking ahead to the next piece of the process, but they'll have a plan. It's not enough to just have the vision. You have to have tools and the support.
Q: You come from a business-focused family. Your grandfather's candy shop evolved into confections giant Tootsie Roll, where your mother and father are still top executives. Did that have any influence on you?
A: My family was in two businesses — they were in the textile business, and they were in the candy business. The conversations around the dinner table were all about the factory floor and how many machines were running and what was happening in the business. I grew up very engaged in manufacturing and as part of a family business. That certainly is part of the passion that I have for (business). My grandfather came to this country and started that business, and he was very important in telling me how to build a business. As he said, "This is what our family does — we build businesses." It's very much part of my DNA.