Maria Contreras-Sweet, are you listening? Now that President Barack Obama has nominated you to run the Small Business Administration, owners have a to-do list for you.
The SBA needs to get banks to lend more, help small companies win more federal contracts and work toward easing regulations, they say. And it needs to get the word out to companies about what it has to offer.
Last week, Obama nominated Contreras-Sweet to head the agency tasked with helping Americans start, build and grow businesses. She's worked with small companies as head of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency and co-founder of Los Angeles-based ProAmerica bank, whose customers are small and medium-sized companies.
Small business owners may be looking to the next SBA administrator for help making their companies stronger, but the role reaches into job creation and the health of the broader economy. More than 99 percent of the 27 million companies in the U.S. are small businesses. They employ about half the nation's workforce.
The new administrator will face ongoing challenges like the government's inability to meet its goals for small business contracts, banks that don't want to lend to small businesses and pressure to aid the slow economic recovery. The new SBA head must attempt to accomplish this with the smallest budget of any federal agency. The SBA's most recent annual budget was $929 million compared to $573 billion for the Pentagon.
If confirmed by the Senate, Contreras-Sweet will succeed Karen Mills, who won widespread approval for increasing aid to small businesses during and after the recession. But Mills was also criticized by Republicans in the House for spending on lending programs that didn't appear to be creating jobs.
Mills says the SBA focused on the best ways to give small businesses more access to financing while also driving job creation.
"(The programs) were tracked and measured for their impact, and have contributed to the position where the agency finds itself today, coming off record years in SBA-backed lending," she says.
Since Mills' departure in August, the SBA has been run by Acting Administrator Jeanne Hulit, the agency's former head of its Office of Capital Access. Hulit would not comment for this story, according to SBA spokesman Terrence Sutherland.
Contreras-Sweet was not giving interviews while her nomination was pending, said Bobby Whithorne, a spokesman for Obama.
Contreras-Sweet is expected to use her banking background to persuade banks to lend more. Small businesses have struggled to get loans since the recession, and they're tired of rejection letters.
"Maybe she's going to have some innovative ideas on how to open up those capital lines," says Katie Vlietstra, vice president for government relations and public affairs of the National Association for the Self-Employed.
Under Mills, the SBA won pledges from major banks to increase small business lending. Banks including Wells Fargo & Co. and Bank of America Corp. say they're living up to them. But only about a third of owners surveyed by Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management say they were able to get a loan in the July-September quarter. The SBA isn't a lender. It backs loans. Its roughly $100 billion loan portfolio is less than half the $285 billion in small business loans tallied by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. on Sept. 30.
The SBA also will need to help educate small businesses about how crowdfunding — the solicitation of investors over the Internet — works. The Securities and Exchange Commission is writing the rules, but the SBA is likely to be the one explaining them, says John Arensmeyer, CEO of Small Business Majority.
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Contracts with the federal government are a huge source of revenue for small businesses. But small company owners and members of Congress complain that government agencies don't do enough to ensure more contracts go to them. The government has a goal of granting 23 percent of contracting dollars to small businesses. It hasn't reached that level for seven years. Small business owners want the next administrator to make sure that big companies subcontract work to small ones.
The SBA needs to work harder to help small businesses in all industries get contracts, says Penny Chuang, owner of Adventium Marketing & Design in New York. The agency, which mentors socially and economically disadvantaged owners, has done well for owners of construction or janitorial firms, she says. But from what she's seen, graphic designers don't get as much help getting contracts.
"It's not a mandate; there's nothing forcing the agencies to give work to small businesses," Chuang says.
The SBA also should encourage agencies to award contracts to companies that help to build or rebuild their communities, says Richard Eidlin, co-founder of the American Sustainable Business Council, an advocacy group. While some contracts are allocated to companies owned by women, minorities and veterans, the government doesn't take into consideration the fact that some companies hire local residents to help their communities, he says.
Small businesses say burdensome government regulations are another issue Contreras-Sweet needs to tackle.
"We feel that's something where some real headway could be made," says Dan Bosch, manager of regulatory policy at the National Federation of Independent Business.
Thousands of federal, state and local regulations are created each year. Most are specific to different industries. The cumulative impact of the regulations places on burden on small businesses that interferes with their ability to grow and create jobs, business groups say.
The types of regulations small businesses find troublesome vary. One regulation the NFIB opposes is an Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposal to limit the amount of crystalline silica workers can inhale. Crystalline silica, a component of sand, granite and other materials, has been linked to lung cancer and respiratory diseases.
"We're extremely concerned about what this regulation will to do construction firms and small manufacturers," Bosch says.
Another proposed OSHA regulation would require employers to create programs to prevent injuries and illnesses in the workplace. The NFIB opposes it because of the expense and amount of paperwork it could create for small businesses.
The SBA needs to better advertise how it can help small businesses, says Hillary Berman, owner of Popcorn & Ice Cream, a consulting firm in Bethesda, Md. Berman, whose clients are small businesses, finds they know the SBA guarantees loans, but they don't know what else the agency does. She fields a lot of questions about what the SBA has to offer, for example, what services the SBA offers to women business owners.
"They ask questions, like how to get small business certifications," Berman says. "I've gone to the SBA website several times to get information for them."
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