When government “meddling” works

Last week, I took a break from deciding whether to vote for the guy who runs over bicyclists or the guy who hates children to check out a media event at Madison’s Full Compass Systems featuring SBA Administrator Karen Mills. (Truth be told, I don’t live in Luther Olsen’s district, so this choice is tragically unavailable to me. But you 14th District voters go ahead and have a good time.)

If you’ve never been to Full Compass, I can tell you, it’s an impressive facility. It bustles with activity, and it has the kind of energy and modern feel that likely helped earn the audio, video, and musical instrument retailer a spot on the SBA 100, which honors 100 small businesses that have created at least 100 jobs after receiving SBA assistance.

In fact, the SBA chose Full Compass Systems as the starting point for its SBA 100 tour, likely seeing the cutting-edge catalog retailer, which does business in the rural far reaches of Madison, as an irresistible story. (In a cheeky sendup of the iconic painting “American Gothic,” the company’s catalog cover features an illustration of Full Compass President and Chair Susan Lipp and its CEO, Jonathan Lipp, standing in a field in front of the company’s building. A three-pronged microphone stand replaces the farmer’s pitchfork.)

I have to admit, during high-powered media events such as this, I sometimes can’t help but feeling a little like Seinfeld’s George Costanza as he prepares to talk with NBC’s programming executives: “They’re men with jobs, Jerry! They wear suits and ties. They’re married, they have secretaries.”

So as I followed the retinue of Full Compass muckety-mucks and meticulously attired U.S. government officials who were touring the facility with Ms. Mills, I couldn’t help but be stricken with a bit of that ol’ Costanza feeling. And though I was perfectly presentable, as I interviewed the administrator one-on-one, I felt like I might as well be wearing Garanimals.

Then again, Full Compass Systems’ own story is one of humble beginnings and rising to the occasion. It started as two-person operation in 1977, and with the help of two SBA business loans in the early ‘80s, grew to become the hip big business that you see today.

It makes you wonder if the Ayn Rand fanatics, Tea Party devotees, and other anti-government true believers who think a libertarian utopia is just a Ron Paul presidency away ever tear themselves from the Free Republic message boards long enough to see what’s going on in the world.

In fact, said Mills, it was the SBA that came to the rescue of many small businesses when the late-2000s credit crisis sent the world into an economic tailspin and made financing harder to get.

“We’ve actually put out a record year in terms of our financing,” said Mills. “We’ve put out $50 billion in the two years since the recovery act was passed. … And one of the reasons is that in October 2008, the banks really just stopped lending to small businesses, and we were able to step up with loan guarantees and fill that gap, and we’re continuing to do that because we still see gaps in the market.”

One somewhat encouraging sign for the country’s financial health (in an uncertain time when, admittedly, the recovery appears about as stable as Michele Bachmann at a gay Wiccan wedding) is that small businesses have apparently shifted their focus when it comes to soliciting the SBA’s help.

“Two years ago, when we talked to small businesses, they said, ‘I need your help because I need a loan – the bank won’t give me a loan,” said Mills. “Now, we hear small businesses say, ‘I need your help because I see that next order, I see that next opportunity to grow, I want to hire these people but I need to know that I’ve got the right business plan. I need to know that I’ve got the right financing that might be available to me, and maybe I can export.”

It’s a tired cliche, but small businesses really are the backbone of our economy. Of course, when politicians say it, they make it sound like they’re announcing the discovery of penicillin. That only makes sense. They’re polished orators who don’t show up at press conferences looking like they got to Goodwill 10 minutes after the Gary Coleman estate dropped off a donation.

But no matter who says it, it’s as true now as it always has been.

Crazy thought: Maybe the government really does have a role in nurturing the grassroots of our economy, and maybe we could stop pouring resources into pork and subsidizing industries that don’t need the money and throw a little more support behind small businesses.

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