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BizTalk: A Q&A with SBA regional administrator Kelly LeDet

Kellie LeDet has learned a lot about the Small Business Administration since she was named regional administrator last July – like, how its Buffalo office handles harsh weather.

When the November snowstorms struck last year, LeDet was in Puerto Rico on a trip for her job. Early in the morning, she called the Buffalo district director, Franklin J. Sciortino, to tell him he she had seen the stunning TV weather reports and that he didn’t need to report to work. “I’m already at work,” Sciortino said.

LeDet laughs at that story. But on a more serious note, she says Sciortino, deputy district director Victoria Reynolds and officials from other districts in her SBA Region II have taught her how the agency is helping small businesses get started or expand. Her territory, which is headquartered in New York City, is vast. She oversees SBA operations in New York State, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

For someone trying to learn what makes an area tick, Sciortino is an expert guide. He is celebrating 50 years with the agency this year; LeDet calls him a “giant in SBA.”

LeDet, a New Jersey native, hosts weekly Monday conference calls with her district directors. She likes to ask them, “How are we going to rock the region this week?” and get the discussion flowing.

Prior to joining SBA, LeDet spent more than 20 years working in federal and state government and private industry. She visited Buffalo recently to meet with small businesses and to present Sciortino with his 50-year service pin:

Q: How does the Buffalo office stand out in the big territory you oversee?

A: With this particular district office, Frank has allowed me to see the evolving of downtown Buffalo, and some of the thoughts, the ideas, bringing together the economic development partners, the industrial development partners. So how do they stand out? I think there’s just that enthusiasm, that robust desire to keep doing what they’re doing.

I think what else stands out is – not that any of the offices complain, and they really don’t – this office says, ‘We’ll figure out how to make it work, we’ll figure out how to get it done.’

On a personal note, what stands out is the 50-year employee, that (Sciortino) is a legacy here. … He could have gone off and started his own business with all those that he helped in the past. But this is that important for him, to enjoy what he’s doing and continue to see people grow, companies grow, as he’s pointing out this company and that company.

Q: What is the lending climate like for the smaller companies? Are they taking advantage of opportunities to borrow money?

A: I do see they’re taking advantage, and it’s up to us to make sure we’re getting out there to those smaller businesses. But it’s also making sure we’re bringing in those lending partners who are willing to extend that microloan.

That microloan is the loan that makes the difference of night and day. … One of the things that the SBA administrator [Maria Contreras-Sweet] has said is, let’s find those that want to make those microloans.

She’s a co-founder of a bank, and she tells a really, really great story which is, she had to go to people she knew she would compete against to ask them for money to start her own bank, because what she was seeing was the small businesses needed the microloans, but they weren’t being loaned the microloans.

So when she came to the SBA, these were some of the things that she initiated. … We just signed a memorandum of understanding with three agencies that represent credit unions. If we can get just 1,000 of the 6,600 federally insured credit unions to lend just 10 loans apiece of $50,000, that increases small business lending by half a billion dollars.

That is incredibly significant. So the goal is to go out and educate those that are looking to start their businesses, grow their businesses, working with the resource partners and making sure that we have those lenders that are coming to the table.

Q: How is the SBA trying to connect with small businesses?

A: We do different events to help the small business owner. The (Buffalo Business) Matchmaker event is an opportunity for small business owners to meet with federal, local and state contractor agencies. Last year, I learned that (Buffalo) had one with 350 small business owners with 50 contracting agencies. Three hundred and fifty small business owners is no easy feat to get together.

There’s a great success story that goes with that. There’s a gentleman by the name of Kamal Jowdy. He went to a Matchmaker event six years ago. His company is Delft Printing, and the company that he contracted with is Dresser-Rand. Six years later, still receiving contracts, and he’s already registered for a seventh Matchmaker event (in May).

This shows the impact and the benefit of attending a Matchmaker event. … (Jowdy) has not said, ‘Oh, I went to one, that’s good enough.’

Q: The SBA has a new effort called Leveraging Information and Networks to Access Capital, to connect lenders with small businesses. How is that working?

A: That’s something fairly new. LINC matches the small businesses to lenders. And if someone is interested in lending to that small business, within 48 hours they will get a response. This is great because then they have that sort of online business relationship.

Q: How much travel do you do for your job?

A: I like to travel quite a bit. … I like to get out to the district offices to see what they’re doing, and it’s not cookie cutter. … You’re dealing with experts, and the good news is, in the Syracuse office and the Buffalo office, you have seasoned executives. But they’re humble enough not to think, ‘I don’t want to take the time to educate this woman on what we’re doing here.’