As nation nears debt ceiling, small business owners tell U.S. leaders: We’ve been there

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg - Jack Lew, the U.S. treasury secretary, speaks during an Economic Club of Washington breakfast in Washington, D.C.

Barring any action from a gridlocked Congress, the federal government will hit the debt ceiling in three weeks, preventing the country from borrowing any more money.

In a sense, according to the head of the nation’s finances, that would leave federal officials in the very same situation many small business owners found themselves in the last few years — dependant on cash on hand with nowhere to turn.

“Once you’ve hit the end of extraordinary measures, you’re borrowing authority is gone, you’re then left with cash,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said during a recent appearance before the Economic Club of Washington. “And as any small business person knows, if you’re operating your business by relying on cash in the cash box to pay your daily bills, if your revenue is not adequate on a given day and you empty your cash box, you can’t pay all your bills.”

Lew has since said that the government will reach the end of its line of credit no later than Oct. 17.

“I can’t refill the cash box once we have lost our ability to use extraordinary measures,” he said at the forum, later adding that “we are getting very close to these deadlines and we need to get going.”

It is a scenario all too familiar to small business owners right now, as the lending market and private capital tightened and have been slow to rebound in the wake of the recession. Some researchers, meanwhile, have found that the freeze on Main Street started more than a decade ago,and it may linger even after the economy recovers.

On Small Business reached out to small business owners around the country for their opinions on Lew’s analogy and any advice they would give to a government dipping into the cash box, or worse, shutting down the government, even temporarily. Here’s what they had to say.

Carol Supplee, owner of Imagine Artwear, a craft gallery in in Alexandria, Va.:

“Secretary Lew’s analogy to small businesses is totally apt. If I don’t pay my suppliers, my rent, utilities, security, insurance, employees, business licenses and taxes, I will be out of business in very short time.

“When I watched sales start to fall in December 2007, I started planning for worst-case scenarios. I sold some securities to reduce debt. I worked harder to make the assets on hand pay off more, and I paid all my bills on time. It had to be business as usual, tighten the belt and soldier on. Honor all commitments or fail.”

Nancy Clark, owner of Glen Group, Inc., a marketing and advertising firm in North Conway, N.H.:

“The difference with small businesses is that we find a way to keep our doors open, lights on, and people employed. So many of us have been in this exact situation and we don’t threaten each other, but we work with our employees, our friends, our colleagues and we find a way to survive without shutting down.

“My advice to elected officials and policy makers? Run it like a business. Collaborate. Don’t give up, and figure it out. We have all survived and stayed open, and the government can, too.”

Zachary Davis, owner of the Penny Ice Creamery in Santa Cruz, Calif:

“One thing you never ever want to do is close the doors and shutdown down your business. Nothing strips you of the ability to conduct business, be it with customers or creditors, faster than a closed sign hanging on the door when you’re supposed to be open.

“We’ve been in the position in the past of having to use some short term debt to get us through cash shortages, that’s just the way it goes sometimes. What we’ve tried to do is always go back and look at what led up to those instances, and then try to correct for them in the future.”

Albert F. Macre, owner of Albert F. Macre & Co., an accounting firm in Stubenville, Ohio:

“Mr. Lew’s analogy borders on the absurd. As a small business owner, I have to subject myself to the scrutiny of a banker when my cash box is depleted. And my banker is going to ask me is what actions I have taken to reduce the bleeding. If my answer is that I really haven’t taken any actions other than projecting an increase of outlays based on the inflation, and without regard to the amount of revenue I might take in, he will laugh me out of his office.

“In Mr. Lew’s analogous world, there would be no government, as any responsible banker would have recommended shuttering the windows long ago.

“But since the business of government can’t simply cease, my recommendation would be for Mr. Lew and the federal government to treat every dollar like a well-run small business does. In other words, prioritze its spending and focus resources where they matter most. It might eliminate the need for an increasingly larger cashbox.”

Jarek Steele, co-owner of Left Bank Books, St. Louis, Mo.:

“My business is always in the position of drawing from the cash box. If we decided to close the store during February because we had negative cash flow only to try to open again in March or April when we have more events, we would lose the faith of our community and the credit and good name we have with our vendors. In short, we would go out of business.”

Don Orange, owner of Hoesly ECO Auto & Tire in Vancouver, Wash.:

“As a small business owner, I pay my bills, and Congress should too. The debt ceiling is about paying for what we owe. It’s about what Congress has already agreed to spend through the laws it has already passed. In my world, no one wants to do business with someone who tries to skip out paying their bills.

“My message to Congress: take some advice from a small business owner and pay your bills.”

Dean Cycon, founder and CEO of Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Co. in Orange, Mass.:

“As my grandfather used to tell me, ‘you gotta spend money to make money.’ A successful business or a successful government needs a constant, reliable source of cash to get through the normal ebbs and flows of finance. Of course, it still needs to be spent wisely and in service of the enterprise. If we don’t spend wisely, we fail.

“If the government doesn’t spend wisely, the voters will make sure they change leadership. Let the government get on with its business, the voters can judge at the ballot box.”

LaJuanna Russell, president of Business Management Associates, Inc., a human resources and business management firm in Alexandria, Va:

“As a small business, if I didn’t pay my bills, I would be out of business. For those in Congress to behave as though this is not a serious issue is scary and sorely disappointing. My advice is that they consider their ‘employees’ as I would – and consider the pain they may cause these employees with each decision.”

Matthew Patinkin, co-owner of Auntie Anne’s Pretzels stores in eight states:

“I can’t imagine having the spigot turned off, not making payroll, or not being able to buy inventory. If our elected officials can’t put themselves in the shoes of their constituents, then they shouldn’t be representing us. I expect my representative to make compromises and work through things like adults — not like some kid at the playground who takes his football home because he doesn’t get everything he wants.”

Betsy Burton, owner of The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, Utah:

“Our bookstore has been in that position more than once, and it was always the availability of credit that saved us. Cash flow is a hard reality of business and there are always gaps. The thing that’s so urgent about the issue of a possible shutdown right now is the timing—if we have do have a shutdown at the start of the fourth quarter, right before the holiday shopping season, it would severely damage small businesses all over the country — which would severely damage the entire economy.”

Lynn St.Laurent, owner of Amelie’s French Bakery in Charlotte N.C.:

“I have had many instances in my business when I have had to borrow in order to survive for a few days, or a week or so. Cash flow problems are not unusual and often occur during growth periods. Shutting down has never been an option. I cannot imagine deciding to close for a week or two because I don’t want to borrow and then hoping to somehow fix the problem and reopen with any chance of success.”

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