Is Your Small Business Still Recovering from the Pandemic? Here’s How the SBA Can Help – Allen Thomas

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The Biden-Harris Administration recently appointed Allen Thomas as Regional Administrator for the SBA Southeastern Region IV. According to their data, the SBA Southeast Region has guaranteed over $8 billion in small business loans in the fiscal year 2021, counseled over 400,000 entrepreneurs, and awarded nearly $18 billion in federal contracts to small businesses.  

On today’s show, we’re pleased to welcome Allen Thomas, former three-term mayor, businessman, entrepreneur, a leader in public and private enterprise, and now the Regional Administrator for the Southeastern Region.

Transcription:

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Thank you so much for joining us on today’s show.

Allen Thomas:
So good to be here. I really appreciate your time today and a chance to catch up on all things happening in business.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Sure. I read your bio before we sat down here today. It’s extremely impressive. You were the founder of a healthcare-type company, I guess it was a kind of a SAS company, was it?

Allen Thomas:
We were information and data sets and securitization of data in healthcare back when HIPAA first came out and got on the cutting edge of that. And had a successful exit event after having an 18 year run with that company.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Oh my gosh. It’s funny because when I just in the open, I said three-term mayor and then of course 18 years with the company, you would think some old guy with gray hair would come in here and get up on the stool, but you look so young, so congratulations-

Allen Thomas:
Well, if you keep moving, good things happen.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right. So lets kind of jump right in here. For those that are unfamiliar with this, tell us a little bit about how you got to the position that you’re at today and I did mention some of those things in the opening.

Allen Thomas:
Well, it’s really interesting and it was not any sense of a specific model of how we ended up getting involved with the administration, but I’m passionate about business and entrepreneurship and have had some success, I’ve been very fortunate to work across the entire Southeast and a good friend of mine, Erskine Bowles who ran the SBA a number of years ago, under the Clinton administration. And was ultimately became the chief of staff for President Clinton. When the administrations and when there was a change in administration, he really suggested that I take a shot at this opportunity. And I just talked with my family and decided that this is something that if you get a chance to do something like this, you have to do it where you could be involved and make a difference.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
And you’re in a very unique position for this because you know both the governmental side, as well as the free enterprise side, being a business owner yourself and growing a successful company, that means a lot in a position like this. Typically you’ll find somebody that might come in, that’s been in government for a long time and never actually run a business. But that’s not the case with you. I think it’s a refreshing change to say the least, right?

Allen Thomas:
Well, I think we probably do bring a different lens to the position, that’s for sure. Two years ago, I was on the other side of the equation, applying for PPP loans for a company, we had close to 500 employees and not knowing. It’s easy now to look back and see the trajectory of what’s happened over the past couple of years. But at that point, the fact that we never had to lay a single employee off, and we were able to get the funding in place and have bounced back with resiliency. You’re right, bringing that to the equation, I think is part of the reason that I was hired.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah. Because I think ins so many cases, you get entrepreneurs that will, ring their hands and say, “Ah, this governmental person just doesn’t know what we’re going through as small business owners,” but that’s not the case with you. So you’re very much welcomed here in the world of entrepreneurship and small business owners. So what are your responsibilities overall in the new role?

Allen Thomas:
Well, the Regional Administrator works across all eight districts, which includes everyone from Kentucky and Tennessee, all the way down to Alabama and in Mississippi, and of course Georgia and the Carolinas and Florida’s dividing into a Northern and Southern district. It’s really two roles. One is managerial. We’re working with the district directors and the staffs across all of these states with their traditional programs, and also in the pandemic recovery, making sure these initiatives are moving forward and making sure they’re represented in their needs, dealing with a very large federal government, making sure the resources are in place.

Allen Thomas:
And also being, quite frankly, an advocate for business, getting out here and try to find out and get on the main street and talk to companies and businesses and say, “What can we do to service you better? How can we be a catalyst for your growth, especially in small business?” And that’s really something I’m really passionate about doing here over the next three years.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
What are some of the things that you hear back? You’ve got your ear to the ground and you know what’s going on with these small business owners. What are the things that you’re hearing? What do they need most right now?

Allen Thomas:
Well, a sense of stability, I think going forward. There’s been such a transition in business, if you’ve noticed, over the past couple of years. We’ve seen the workforce population has really changed significantly. Supply chain and logistics on the back end. How do we make that happen? So what we’re positioning companies to understand with the new bipartisan infrastructure bill, which was recently passed. The broadband technology, over 60 billion in investment put out there for broadband for all these rural communities and better connecting. The government contract opportunities. How do we educate you on how to go out?

Allen Thomas:
Because one thing to know about the government is they’re going to pay their bills on time. So if you can, wherever you are across the entire Southeast, you can start up and become a very successful business and really try to penetrate that veil. We know small business people are extremely busy and rarely do they slow down to try to pick into the details of what opportunities they can connect with. We’re working hard to try to get to them where they consume information and put the right information in their hand so they can make a difference in their business.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s great. So it’s not for people that are listening, the SBA is a fantastic organization and it doesn’t just stop with the money. Everybody thinks, “Oh, small business loan,” or things like that. But at the end of the day, like you just said, you will help that business owner all the way through landing that government contract and growing their business, even teaching them how to take their business to the next level, right?

Allen Thomas:
Yeah and especially now, we’ve seen a significant change in, as we mentioned, the workforce than the United States where many people have left traditional roles in the past 12 months. First time business owners starting their own business and a big change in how the economy works, we see here. And our role is so much more. How do you have the right legal help? How do you organize from an accounting standpoint for a small business? How do you get the right type of investments in place for you to be able to grow that? And also bonding, that’s a big, big element with government contracting, which SBAs very involved in. Backing these businesses that are new to help them get bonded so they can go out and compete to bring these jobs.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right. That’s huge. And like you said, in so many cases, small business owners don’t know what they don’t know. But they know that they want that money. They want those contracts out there that are given out every single day. It’s just a question of learning how to get in line and understand all the boxes that you need to check and you guys help small businesses with that in a very big way.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Let me talk to you about, a lot of business owners think in terms of the PPP money, is there still money left? Is it all dried up? And we’ve spoken so much about PPP here at the Atlanta Small Business Show and had so many experts in. But at the end of the SBA goes so far beyond that. So there’s business owners that have actually put their request on hold thinking, “Well, no, there’s no more PPP money. So I’m not going to be eligible for a loan.” Talk to us about that. That’s a mistake, right?

Allen Thomas:
Well, there are so many different platforms that SBA brings to the table. If you go to sba.gov and just dive in. And also the local staffs, the traditional business support staffs in Georgia, do a great job trying to walk you through, but you just got to pick up the phone to make the contact. We know that last year, even in the post COVID environment, we went from about 1 billion of traditional lending in the state of Georgia, which this past year in 2021, over 2.1 billion. So that doubled, historic numbers in the traditional lending program. And then the pandemic response and recovery was close to 36 billion and counting in investment just in the state of Georgia alone.

Allen Thomas:
So yes, the traditional programs there think beyond just simple react and recovery, think about your trajectory of growth and that’s where our traditional 7A and 504 microlending programs, what we allow you to do is even if you think, “I can’t go to the traditional FDIC bank and just get a traditional loan.” We’re here to back your investment, to make that opportunity simpler for you and make it possible. So tremendous opportunities across the board. The PPP Program, that has moved on, but now the traditional lending has great opportunities for small business.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah, no question. And the PPP Program kept so many businesses alive, as you were just mentioning, ours included. We benefited from it in a very big way and kept our employees employed throughout that whole time. And it came in, in such the right time and a huge helping hand and quickly too. I think every small business owner I spoke to said, “My gosh, it was amazing, how quickly from the time you applied for it to the time it was put into your account.” So kudos to you guys on that. That was a job well done and one that small business owners, I think, feel as though, “Thank God that came along at that time,” right?

Allen Thomas:
And as we mentioned, that was something that I experienced on the other side of the equation in the private side industry there, over 500 employees that we were able to keep working and taking care of their families and keep that going. It was something that had to happen and that bridged both administrations. But I think this administration has taken it to the next level with a generational investment with this bipartisan infrastructure bill. Just from an investment standpoint, it will change this country for decades to come.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah, there’s no question about it. And in the auto side, we do some content on the auto side and the automotive industry here in the US and obviously with 500,000 charging stations now, that’s going to just accelerate that whole electrification of auto automobiles, and so many other different types of vehicles that are out there.

Allen Thomas:
What an exciting time to be in the automotive industry. Is it not? The electric vehicle and what that’s going to change and really the paradigm shift between the ability to be able to go the coverage of mileage and also how quick you can charge these vehicles, is changing so quickly. And it’s an exciting time for that industry.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
And there’s so many small businesses that are evolving from that. We’ve spoken to small business owners here, entrepreneurs that said, “Well, we put together a company that if your EV runs out of juice, we can run out and charge it.” And they launched it, not launched it here at our show, but we brought them on and they’ve been doing phenomenal business of those, all of those 1000s of EVs out there that run out of juice in the middle of nowhere until all the charging stations are installed. And this company runs out and charges the car up, right here in Atlanta, so it’s pretty cool.

Allen Thomas:
That is the exact kind of business that we want to get in contact with, with SBA and be able to kind of show them that there’s so much opportunity for scalability and growth, where we could help provide that funding for them to be able to provide a much needed service. When you and I look back, we see these telephones we hold in our hands now. You remember back, the late eighties and early nineties, they were almost bigger than your car. The bag phones, remember these?

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s right.

Allen Thomas:
And now you look at the technology, we carry the technology. And one of these phones, we could fly 10 space shuttles when those were invented. But the same thing with the automotive industry and these small entrepreneurs, innovation is a major, major push for SBA right now. We want to fund entrepreneurs and folks in innovation. That’s my background. And I’m excited about that.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah. That’s fantastic. Talk to us a little bit about the timing for small businesses right now. There’s a lot of entrepreneurs, or I should say, wantrepreneurs that tune into our show each week and read all of our content on our website. And they’re just not sure this is the right time because of all of the COVID and the chaos and what’s happening. They see some small businesses close and some restaurants that are suffering. But you come in and say, “$2 billion we lent out in 2021 for small business owners.” That’s fantastic. In your opinion, is now a good time for somebody to open up a small business?

Allen Thomas:
Well, I think entrepreneurs are speaking with their feet. They’re going out and launching businesses many time for the first time, deciding to get out the traditional roles they may have had in the past. And it’s an excellent time to consider starting a small business. In worst case, to do your due diligence and research and go to an SVDC Center, which SBA is very involved in, a Small Business Development Center or SCORE and these other programs. And don’t let the fact that if you’re a veteran or if you’re a woman and woman liking to start a business or a traditionally underserved market, we know a lot of Georgia, a lot of rural areas, a lot of rural areas in the Southeast, understand that you are our areas of focus. That sometimes you may feel like you’ve been left behind and maybe in past scenarios, but with SBA, we focus on these markets, because we want to create new markets and growth where we expect the economy to go.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s great. And there’s really, what’s the maximum somebody can borrow from the SBA? You guys go all the way up, depending on the type of loan or real estate or what have you.

Allen Thomas:
It really does. You have the 7A Loan Program and the 504, which is more about real estate, 7A’s for payroll and other financial needs, workforce, things that you need to make an investment in, micro lending. It could be very small amounts or it could be millions. It depends on your opportunity, but that’s what SBA, give you the chance to compete and be successful, that the traditional lending market can’t always lend itself to. And I’ll tell you one thing we’ve discovered over the past year is, the small lending is a space we feel like we’re going to play a much heavier role in the next several years going forward. Sometimes if you’re that entrepreneurial EV company, and maybe you need 100,000 or 200,000 just to buy the equipment and hardware you need to launch, that’s not too small. That’s SBAs wheelhouse. We’re here to help you.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s great. That’s fantastic. And easier than most people would think, right? I’ve spoken to a number of people that have sat right there that have opened up businesses through the generosity, I guess you could say and with the help of SBA, and they said it was much easier than they thought it was when they were going in. And then you guys were there every step of the way, right?

Allen Thomas:
We have specialized people within our staffs that will sit and talk to your specific need. What you need in terms of your business? They’ll walk you through the process and hand you all through the different specialists to kind of guide you through this important process of really evaluating and many times I’ve talked to others that didn’t have a business plan. They had a concept and an idea. The great thing about SBA is they can take you from concept to turn that into just what they did with me back in the 90s. And when I started our company, literally walked us through the incubation period of a company and a business and all the way through to maturity, as you can see and to grow. So at any point in the trajectory of a company, there’s a place for you at SBA and we’re here to help you, and small business is the backbone of this country, it always has been.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Yeah. There’s no question about it. For sure. And so for those entrepreneurs that are listening to us right now, you could have a great idea. Maybe you’re watching Shark Tank and saying, “I could do this.” And instead of looking for that investor, you got the guy right here with an open checkbook, that’s going, “Bring me your ideas, and we’ve got somebody that can help you with that,” that’s pretty cool.

Allen Thomas:
We aren’t Mark Cuban, but we have some of the same entrepreneurial spirit in terms of trying to get this thing done. I have been very impressed with SBA stepping over from the private sector into this role, over the past couple of months. And just the work ethic and just the spirit of entrepreneurship and watching everyone rally together after what’s happened across the country and the world. And seeing SBA really step up and as again, the numbers speak for themselves. Historic numbers here in Georgia, double the number of traditional lending dollars through SBA., and we’re here to help you grow, that’s what it’s all about.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Is Georgia out of the area that you cover? Are we among the top in terms of the states that you’re over? You got a lot going on in Georgia, between the film industry and all else that falls under that. We got a lot going on.

Allen Thomas:
Georgia has a phenomenal dynamic economy, no doubt about it. They rank in the three or so in the Southeast. Florida’s doing well. The Carolinas are doing pretty well. But Georgia just brings such a diverse environment for growth here. And it’s great to see what’s happening right here in your backyard. That’s that’s great.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
What do you want to get done by the end of the year? Is there anything on your to-do list that you say, “This is what we’re attacking.”

Allen Thomas:
We are. We’re going to go out and get with all the Chamber of Commerce’s and local groups. We want to get down on a cellular level. We have a new program called the Community Navigators, which is about $100 million stimulus investment. And they have a hub and spoke type setup. Just these type of businesses that you and I are talking about, and they’ll be designated on the website for SBA, for your individual state. Okay. That you, you can go to these partner organizations and they’ll be your mentor and walk you through launching of a new business. So we’re excited about the community navigators program and what we feel is going to make a massive difference all across all the Southeast.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
That’s great. Well, this is music to a lot of people’s ears right now, listening to you with all of this great news. So Allen Thomas, Region IV Administrator for the US Small Business Administration. Congratulations on the new appointment and anything we can do here at the Atlanta Small Business Show to help you get the word out, just let us know, happy to do it.

Allen Thomas:
As we have new initiatives, we’ll be here to see you and look forward to talking about great successes right here in Georgia.

Jim Fitzpatrick:
Fantastic. We look forward to it. Thank you.

Allen Thomas:
Thank You.


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