Area start-up hopes to turn ‘idle cash’ into new jobs


Lynn Sullivan, Brien Biondi and Andrea Gonzalez, Capital J in Washington. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR WASHINGTON POST)
November 11, 2012

American corporations are sitting on $1.7 trillion in cash reserves, according to the latest figures from the Federal Reserve — and Lynn Sullivan says she has a plan to put that money to work.

The idea, she said, is to give small and mid-size businesses access to capital markets that are normally reserved for larger corporations.

Private Employment Partners Program, which Sullivan founded this summer, would act as a loan guarantor for banks that lend to rapidly growing businesses with annual revenue between $30 million and $100 million.

“The idle cash that’s sitting out there is [nearly] $2 trillion,” Sullivan said. “If you can get 1 percent of that $2 trillion, you’ve solved the problem of unemployment and underemployment.”

This is how it would work: PEPP would funnel a portion of the money sitting on the balance sheets of large, publicly traded companies (think Google or Facebook) into a pooled investment brokerage account.

From there, 60 percent of the pooled money would be invested in stocks and bonds, while the remaining funds would be set aside to guarantee loans from third-party banks to small businesses that would use the funds to create new jobs.

“What we’re doing is, we’re trying to remove the risk for banks to lend to small businesses,” Sullivan said.

“Ten million dollars in a brokerage account — for Google, that’s a rounding error,” she added. “If we can get to that idle cash, why not do something with it?”

But first, Sullivan needs to persuade corporations — those with at least $10 million to invest for three years — to fork over the money. She has her sights set on major companies like Cisco and Xerox, but has yet to have to nail down any takers.

Sullivan said her immediate focus is to fund technology companies where both sales and employment have at least doubled during the past four years. After that, she said she plans to expand to the cybersecurity, defense and automotive industries.

In October, 171,000 jobs were added to the U.S. economy. Even so, the unemployment rate has remained largely unchanged in recent months, hovering near 7.9 percent.

“Job creation just isn’t happening fast enough,” said Brien Biondi, an adviser to PEPP. “With this program, we’re going to be able to help businesses grow — and even better, create jobs.”

Part of the problem for small businesses, Sullivan said, is that banks size them up based solely on the amount of cash that appears on their balance sheets. Sullivan argues that a company’s “intangible assets” — customer satisfaction, market value — go a long way in predicting its potential.

In recent months, Sullivan has assembled a group of likely partners who would help facilitate the process: Morgan Stanley Smith Barney to hold and manage the money; law firm Jones Day to help with legal needs; BoeFly, a Web site that would match borrowers with banks; and online lending service On Deck Capital to assess borrowers and collect loan payments from borrowers on a daily basis to ensure that default rates remain low.

“The problem for small businesses is that they can get just enough money to get by, but not to grow,” she said.

Borrowers would have to submit payrolls tax data every month to show that they are indeed using the loans to create jobs.

“For every $1 million that’s borrowed, we can create a minimum of 10 jobs,” Sullivan said. “We think that’s the first part of the solution.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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