Hard work pays off

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AUGUSTA – As is so often the case in business, it’s who you know that makes the difference.

In Moe Dubé’s case, it was a prime reason the Lewiston native was tapped by the federal government to take the top post in Maine for the Small Business Administration.

“You have to know the players to have maximum impact,” said Dubé, who started his job as district director last Monday.

An example: When floods jeopardized Maine businesses last year, the SBA – working with state agencies – was able to dispatch disaster teams immediately.

“We were on the ground within 48 hours helping small businesses,” Dubé said. Sometimes the assistance was as simple as being the liaison between the business owner and a lender looking for a past-due payment. Sometimes it was more involved, like accessing federal disaster funds. But in both cases, knowing the people, the businesses and the agencies makes getting things done a lot easier.

“The job is much more difficult when you go into an area unfamiliar to you,” he said.

Dubé knows Maine well. He grew up on Castle Street, where he and his wife, Anita, live today. A 1967 graduate of St. Dom’s, Dubé spent five weeks at Orono before he realized he wasn’t ready for college.

He came home and got a job in the Hill division of Bates Mill, where he learned the value of hard work and respect for working people.

“Bates Mill was quite an education,” he said. “I developed an appreciation of the people who came before me, and of those who worked side by side with me. It takes a lot of courage to work in a mill and raise a family on those wages.”

After a two-year stint in the Army, he came back to Maine and Bates … but the college this time, not the mill. Three years later, he graduated and worked for a bit with the state Department of Labor before his score on a civil service exam landed him a job with the IRS.

His facility with French took him into the North Woods, where he worked on an IRS project with loggers, one of the more unusual programs in his seven years with the agency.

Sharing office space in the federal building in Augusta meant he got to know the staff of the SBA, and when there was an opening in liquidations, he applied. He rose steadily through the ranks, reaching the level of deputy district director in 1996.

Then in 2003 he was tapped to take the district director’s post in St. Louis, which led to the top spot in Boston and now, the top post in Maine.

“Maine is home,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad to be back.”

As director in three different districts, Dubé had responsibility and oversight of all the federal business assistance programs under the SBA umbrella. Surprisingly, the challenges that face small businesses seem to be nearly universal, whether they are companies in St. Louis, western Massachusetts or Maine.

“The same issues apply,” he said, comparing Massachusetts’ 640,000 small businesses with Maine’s 160,000. Access to money, market analysis, business planning … all are issues any new business deals with.

And that gives Dubé a chance to crow about SBA programs. The federal business counseling services are free, and the training programs carry nominal costs. SCORE, a volunteer corps of experienced business owners and executives, is a gem of a program, which Dubé recommends to anyone thinking of starting or expanding a business.

“They do have a serious impact on our customers,” he said, applauding the dedication of Maine’s 200 SCORE volunteers. “They aren’t interested in anything other than doing a good job and serving you well … even when serving you well might mean discouraging you from starting that business.”

The SBA’s other two programs – Small Business Development Centers and Women in Business Centers – also offer extensive, targeted training and counseling to would-be entrepreneurs, or existing business owners who are looking for some guidance.

The other big part of the SBA is its loan-guarantee program. The federal agency works with certified lenders guaranteeing small business loans to the tune of $69 million in Maine so far this year.

“We are committed to having every person in the state of Maine that might need financing for a small business gets it,” Dubé said.

The typical loan here averages $100,000, but the SBA can back loans of up to $4 million.

It’s serious business, something Dubé learned while working in liquidations with the SBA and collections with the IRS. He said pulling the plug on a failing business usually had repercussions within the community and the business person’s family. If there was a way to avoid it and work out a solution, he was determined to find it.

It’s a philosophy he carries into his office in the Muskie Federal Building on Sewall Street in Augusta.

“I always say, you can’t do anything about the course of the wind, but you can adjust your sails,” he said.

He knows there are challenges ahead for him. He expects there will be fewer SBA dollars coming from Washington as more tax money gets earmarked for the war in Iraq. And there are inherent disadvantages for Maine businesses, from weather-related costs to low population to long transportation distances.

But he’s heartened by a new spirit of cooperation he’s sensing since returning to Augusta. And an affirmation that small business is the backbone of Maine’s economy and an appreciation for the new jobs it generates.

Now’s the time to capitalize on that recognition by getting the word out about the SBA, he said.

“You know, whenever I go into a doughnut shop, or a car repair shop, I ask how’s business,” he said. “And sometimes an owner will say, ‘Good. We’re looking to expand.’ Then they tell me they’ve never heard of the SBA.

“Getting the word out … that will continue to be the challenge.”

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