Why I Nominate a Southwest SVP to Head the SBA
Back in February, Karen Mills, the chief of the Small Business Administration, announced that she would resign the post and step down when the President found her successor. This hasn't happened yet but it's inevitable. Which means he still has time to find that next great person.
Mills did a very good job. According to one account, "Over the last four years the SBA supported more than $106 billion in lending to more than 193,000 small businesses and entrepreneurs, including two record years of delivering more than $30 billion in loan guarantees. When she inherited it, the agency had languished under the George W. Bush administration, which cut its funding by about 26 percent since 2001 and sliced staff by 18 percent since 2003."
Mills, a tireless advocate for small business, travelled frequently around the country to talk about issues affecting small business and appeared to be genuinely well liked. During her tenure, she was the first chief of the Small Business Administration to be elevated to a presidential cabinet position. Plus, her father is the CEO of Tootsie Roll Industries and I love tootsie rolls. But I've got enough cavities as it is. And Mills is still leaving the SBA. A successor must be appointed. I'm not sure who the president is considering but I'd like to throw someone's name in the hat. And that person is Teresa Laraba. Yes, that's right: Teresa Laraba. Wait...who?
Why I Recommend This Seemingly Unknown Candidate
You've never heard of Laraba right? Look, I don't know this woman either. I've never met her. We've never communicated. I looked her up online and she seems pretty nice. She's got a couple of kids and liked to swim when she was younger. Hopefully she still does because swimming is good exercise. Also, she kind of looks like Penny from The Big Bang Theory and I like Penny because she's funny and smarter than you think. But that's not why I believe Laraba should be appointed to lead the Small Business Administration. It's because of what she currently does for a living. Ready? She's the senior vice president of customers at Southwest Airlines where she's in charge of customer support and services and customer relations. And she's been at Southwest since 1984.
Now you're starting to get it, right?
Just last week a friend told me a story about Southwest. His mother-in-law had passed away after a long illness in Florida and religious circumstances required that his family bring her body back home to the Philadelphia area as soon as possible. All flights were booked. His wife called Southwest Airlines' customer service for help. And help they did: they found space on a plane and provided a special guide to escort the bereaved family through the airport and the complicated process of bringing a departed loved one home. I hear these stories about Southwest all the time. I'm a frequent flyer of US Airways and have no beef with them. But even I notice a difference when I fly Southwest. The attitude of the employees. The extra perks and accommodations. The songs. And most importantly: the willingness to serve.
That is what the country needs at the Small Business Administration.
What Customer Service Has to Do With the SBA
The SBA administers and guarantees billions in loans. That's really its primary purpose. I get that. And this should continue, even expand. Some may argue that its loan guarantees aren't effective for all small businesses. But I know many who have benefited. The agency played a big part in helping the small business community navigate through the last recession and even through this current economic malaise. But, in my opinion, it could and should be doing much more.
The SBA should be the customer service arm of the government. Whenever any small business owner has a question or problem involving federal bureaucracy the agency should be the very first place he or she calls. The problem may be about a contract, a tax matter, an environmental law, a regulation, a dispute. These are all the ways that the government affects the typical small business owner's life. When a small business has a problem now, no one knows where to turn for help. It's not to say that the SBA doesn't try to be a conduit. But there is so much room for improvement. Clients that I know who have tried to deal with the SBA on a regulatory, tax, or contract matter usually throw up their hands in frustration and are forced to hire an attorney to figure it all out. If they can afford to, that is. Small business owners don't have the time or money to be able to handle these complex matters on their own.
I'm not saying that the employees at the SBA have to be as cheerful, friendly, or even break into song like some of the people at Southwest Airlines do. (Although I must admit that would be kind of cool.) But they should be advocates, not administrators. They should all be trained in the art of navigating the U.S. government. They should be positioned as an arm of the typical small business owner, a resource, a friend, and a conduit of answers. The SBA should have a database of relationships and contacts at every governmental agency to help cut through red tape and make life easier for owners. The typical SBA employee doesn't have to be an expert at taxes, for example. But he or she should be able to quickly connect owners to someone competent at the IRS who can help with taxes.
Skip a Bureaucrat, and Even a Small Business Owner
For Mills' eventual replacement I hope that the president doesn't appoint some patron of the democratic party or a big contributor to his campaign. And believe it or not, I don't care if that person has had "small business experience," or if her father "ran a small business" a thousand years ago. The Small Business Administration doesn't need a small business owner in charge and it certainly doesn't need a government bureaucrat as its leader either. It needs someone who knows how to run a large organization that provides the highest level of customer service that is envied by just about everyone.
Which is why Teresa Laraba is perfect for the job.
It would be a challenging transition for her, but I know she could do it. Customer service is customer service, regardless of the organization. If she's given the authority and the resources to put the right team and structure in place she would surely take everything she's learned at Southwest Airlines and turn the SBA into a completely different and better organization that's way more focused on its end users.
But look, I don't know if she'd even take this job. In fact, she'd be crazy to leave her position at Southwest and her nice family life in Dallas to travel to DC for a job that probably pays less and comes with a heck of a lot more grief. But maybe there's something the president can do to convince her. Maybe free upgrades whenever she flies anywhere around the country on SBA business? No charge for her luggage? Priority check-in? I'm sure he can come up with something.
GENE MARKS is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post.
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