Karen Gordon Mills Rolls Up Her Sleeves as New SBA Administrator
In April 1 testimony before the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, Mills discussed her hands-on experience managing and helping to grow small businesses, including managing factories in Arkansas and Ohio during the recession in the early 1990s, helping to grow organic food and women-oriented media companies and bringing technology to boat builders in rural Maine.
"The sum of my experience is this: I am a believer in American small business," Mills said. "I am a believer in America's ability to manufacture goods and services that are world class, and I am a believer in America's spirit of entrepreneurship. This spirit is one of our country's greatest assets and we need to cultivate it today, more than ever."
As CUNA welcomes Mills, the trade group said it will continue to tout member business lending expansion as one of its top priorities.
"We look forward to identifying opportunities with the SBA that will help credit unions increase member business lending and help drive the economic recovery," said CUNA President/CEO Dan Mica.
Before 2003, credit unions with geographic or community charters were the only credit unions allowed to participate in the SBA's 7(a) program. That restriction was lifted in 2003 to include all credit unions. Since then, CUNA has kept a dialogue going with the SBA on increasing credit union participation. There are now more than 450 credit union SBA lenders.
As administrator of the SBA, Mills will direct a federal agency with more than 2,000 full-time employees, with a leading role in helping small business owners and entrepreneurs secure financing, technical assistance and training, and federal contracts.
Mills, of Brunswick, Maine, was president of MMP Group and has a 25-year career of investing in and growing small businesses. In 2007, she was appointed by Maine Gov. John Baldacci as chair of the state's Council on Competitiveness and the Economy, where she focused on attracting investment in rural and regional development initiatives.
Kent Moon, president/CEO of Member Business Lending LLC in Salt Lake City, is a former SBA official who served as district director of the agency's Utah office. At the SBA's Washington headquarters, he also served in a number of roles including financial analyst and senior technical adviser. Moon said he is encouraged by Mills background, particularly since she has strong experience not only in the small business sector but as an economist.
"Reviewing her background, she seems well-qualified to assume the role," Moon said. "I'm very excited. With the new administration coming in, it's a great opportunity to see some significant changes."
Mills' predecessor, Sandy Baruah, felt just as strongly that she was the ideal person to run the SBA. When then President-elect Barack Obama nominated Mills back in December, Baruah said her combination of management, venture capital and public policy skills are "three elements key to leading the agency successfully."
In her testimony, Mills acknowledged that SBA loan guarantees are down more than 50% from levels a year ago in part because of lower creditworthiness of borrowers, tighter lending standards, lack of liquidity in bank balance sheets and a frozen secondary market for SBA guaranteed loans. Moon offered a different perspective, saying that SBA volume is actually up since before the Bush administration took over.
"This recession is not as bad as the one in 1981 or 1982," Moon said. "When I hear of someone saying gloom and doom, I always want to say it's about the economic cycles. We now have an economist running the SBA who most likely understands this."
To turn around some of the SBA's falloff, Mills said the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act aims to reduce fees to borrowers and lenders and increasing guarantee percentages. Struggling businesses will get a $35,000 lifeline to bridge them for six months of interest and principal payments, she added. The $15 billion committed to the Troubled Asset Relief Program will also help toward the purchase of SBA guaranteed paper in the secondary markets.
"There are over 26 million small businesses in this country, and they create 70% of the new jobs," Mills 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."
Moon said he plans to reach out to Mills and if given the opportunity, he would ask her what she intends to do to improve the delivery of long-term debt capital to America's small businesses.
"Industry lending is so highly controlled by ineffective regulations that it chokes off capital," Moon said. "Big banks are the ones that have choked it off through bad decisions with subprime loans. Because of their mistakes, we are now suffering as a nation. We've focused so much on banks and the auto industry. The reality is, let's return to small businesses. If every small business hired one person, just imagine what that would do."
Meanwhile, credit unions have proven over the last five years that they can produce high volume of credit, Moon offered. The propensity is, he explained, more regulations are needed, when the reality is "we need more regulation of big banks. Let's downplay these large lenders and open the doors to credit unions and other medium to small lenders."