Head of small-business agency plays key role in Obama's job creation initiatives
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Years before President Obama tapped her to run the Small Business Administration, Karen G. Mills was tasked with creating jobs at the Brunswick Naval Air Station near her Maine home.
The sprawling facility responsible for more than 6,000 jobs was put on the military base closure list in 2005, and Gov. John E. Baldacci (D) came to Mills, a locally prominent entrepreneur and venture capitalist, with a plea.
"The governor said: 'Look, you've got to figure out how to bring some jobs to the base when it closes. What are we going to do? We're going to need to bring some small companies there and have them have the potential to grow,' " Mills recalled. "The base is like 500 yards from my house. I looked out and said I've got to help."
What came next launched Mills on a trajectory that made her a nationally recognized authority on business development. In Maine, Mills targeted one of the state's oldest industries -- boat building -- and turbocharged it. She helped organize a collaborative partnership that gave manufacturers enhanced financial clout, while allowing them to integrate the new composite materials being developed at a nearby University of Maine campus. The result was a boat-building cluster that turns out watercraft now sold around the world.
That was a big step in the base's rebirth as a high-tech business, conference and education hub. Mills then served as chairwoman of the Governor's Council on Competitiveness and the Economy, where she worked to attract federal investment in a range of development initiatives.
It is the kind of success that Mills hopes to replicate as SBA administrator. It is an ambitious goal for the head of an agency that for much of its 57-year history has been little more than an afterthought in the government bureaucracy. With just over 2,000 employees, the SBA is small by federal standards, but its mission is enormous: to help ensure the prosperity of small companies.
Given the nation's still-shrinking job market, that role has rarely been more important. Firms with fewer than 500 employees employ just over half of the country's workers and create nearly two-thirds of the country's new jobs. With unemployment hovering near 10 percent and employers shedding a staggering 8.4 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007, the agency has taken on new significance.
"I had the chance to see what we call the bone structure of the SBA and see what valuable extraordinary strength there is [in] its base activities," she said, adding that the agency has a $90 billion loan portfolio and a charge to help small firms gain a fair share of federal procurement contracts. "So the SBA really had the tools to be very instrumental in helping small business, and small businesses were going to be very instrumental in turning around the economy in the short term and in building the nation's competitiveness in the long term."
Since winning Senate confirmation in April, Mills has helped shape many of the president's job creation initiatives, including small-business tax breaks and SBA program expansions; some have been passed and others are pending in Congress. She also has helped administer stimulus programs that she said have resulted in more than $21 billion being funneled to small businesses.
As Mills sees it, the stimulus plan and other Obama initiatives have saved the U.S. economy from an even more damaging calamity -- an opinion shared by many mainstream economists. At the same time, she recognizes that voters are unhappy with the administration's efforts to fix the economy because of the high unemployment rate.
"In the near term, a lot of people got immediate help because they got tax relief" in the stimulus, Mills said, adding that people "are not focused on that." Still, she said, the plan laid "a lot of important foundational pieces without which unemployment and the economy would have just been much, much worse. But you can't see that. "
Before joining government, Mills was a successful investor and business manager. As the president of MMP Group, she played a leading role in manufacturing firms involved in a variety of sectors, such as food, textiles and industrial components. Prior to that, she was a co-founder and a managing director of Solera Capital, a private equity firm.
"My whole working life has really been focused on small businesses," she said. "When you look at this economy and this recession, I understand what all these small businesses are going through. I know. I've been there."