U.S. Small Business Administration Southeast Regional Administrator Allen Thomas (pictured below) paid a visit to Wilmington earlier this week, meeting with small business partners and touting SBA programs that can – and have – helped companies survive both natural disasters and the economic hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our profile was raised during the [COVID] crisis,” he said. “We stepped up for businesses that were in
harm’s way and helped them get to the other side.”
The SBA is not itself a lender, Thomas said, so its relationships with banks and other financial institutions that actually make the loans are very important. The pandemic forced some basic changes in the way the SBA communicates with its partners and its borrowers.
“We have become much more digitally engaged: Our use of digital platforms has been a phenomenally transformational element,” he continued. “The majority of our employees now function in a digital environment to allow us to partner with more local entities more intimately.”
One primary point Thomas is stressing to local officials and lending partners as he travels around his eight-state region is that the SBA is focused on helping rural areas as well as urban areas.
“We’re specifically targeting how we can impact rural economies. During COVID we touched across all spectrums,” Thomas said. “We want to make sure rural businesses have access to travel, to free training, and to broadband connectivity. The digital economy is very important. We want small communities across the Southeast to be catalysts [for economic development]. Wilmington has a huge role to play, with resources like the SBTDC [Small Business and Technology Development Centers] and SCORE,” an SBA business mentorship program.
Thomas understands the challenges of running a small business as well as the importance of local leadership in times of crisis. A native of Eastern North Carolina, he was a three-term mayor in Greenville and the co-founder and owner of a medical technology company there. The pandemic showed him what government relief programs could do and also how small rural communities could get left behind.
“I had first-person experience with the Paycheck Protection Program,” he said of the SBA’s popular pandemic relief initiative. “Thanks to the PPP, I never had to lay off any of my 480 employees. That experience significantly shaped my perspective. I had faced hurricanes as a public leader and noticed that larger cities were more resilient; many small businesses in small towns never came back.”
Thomas is taking advantage of the SBA’s raised profile to publicize other programs, such as short-term, low-interest loans to help businesses and individuals recover from disasters as they wait for insurance payments. He’s also promoting loans aimed at helping veterans, minorities and women launch businesses.
“There were lots of startups during COVID,” he said. “We’re seeing a pulse of new women-owned businesses and first-time business owners across the Southeast. How do we get them out of that extra bedroom or carport to a sustained business model?”
To reach more minority business owners, Thomas said the SBA has forged a new partnership with the “Divine Nine,” a nickname for the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which is made up of African American sororities and fraternities. This powerful network continues to connect and unite the efforts of members as they pursue careers and become leaders in their communities.
As he tours the SBA’s Southeastern region this summer, Thomas promotes the need for hurricane preparedness, highlighting SBA programs designed to address storm damage costs.
“We’re here for the long haul, to make sure we get people to the right partners. We work with homeowners as well as businesses in terms of disaster relief.” he said.
Thomas’ advice for new and aspiring business owners?
“Reach out to the SBA to launch their business, or to the SBTDC for free tools on how to get their underpinning beneath them for a launch. Understand how to get access to capital. We have resources to help them on the way,” he said.
As a result of pandemic-driven public awareness of the SBA, and its heightened ability to respond quickly to needs, Thomas said, “We will look back and see this [period] as a turning point.”