Wall Street Pain Hurts Small Businesses

Mike Mitternight knows a lot about the pain caused by the credit crunch.

No, he isn't some Wall Street banker. And no, he isn't a stock broker.

Mitternight owns a Louisiana air conditioning installation and service company that would seem completely removed from the turmoil in the stock market. But like countless other small-business owners across the country, Mitternight suffers from an economic crisis that started with mortgages, and now has rippled all the way down to his business.

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The giant commercial air conditioners that Mitternight's company, Factory Service Agency Inc., installs cost up to $150,000. He doesn't have that type of cash just lying around.

Normally, the manufacturer sells him the equipment on credit. He then installs it on a construction site and bills the general contractor. Then, about 45 days later, a check comes for his work and he pays back the manufacturer.

"They all understood that this equipment was going to a construction project and the turnaround was going to be slow," he said.

But now with companies large and small tightening their lines of credit, Mitternight is getting hurt: The air conditioner manufacturers are no longer giving him a month or two to pay his bills.

That leaves him with two options: pressure his clients to pay him faster -- not something that is always possible -- or get a short-term loan, adding thousands of extra dollars to his operating expenses and cutting into his profits.

"The interest could be a couple thousand dollars, so you start eating quickly into that 15 percent markup that you had," Mitternight said.

Mitternight is not alone.

Think about the car dealer who buys new vehicles on credit, hoping to sell them fast. Or that clothing retailer who borrows to buy this season's latest fashions. They and thousands of other small businesses are struggling to obtain short-term loans for the most basic of business operations, including merchandise purchases and payroll.

"Small-business owners are feeling less confidant in nearly every way," National Small Business Association President Todd O. McCracken said in a statement. "Decreasing home values, a tight credit market, skyrocketing energy prices and failing financial institutions have led to 67 percent of small-business owners who believe that the U.S. economy is worse off today than it was five years ago."

President Bush addressed the pain felt by small-business owners twice this week, including a speech yesterday before leaders and employees at Guernsey Office Products, Inc., just outside of Washington, D.C.

The president said the government has taken steps to fix the economy, but added it is a "gradual process."

"Thawing the freeze in the financial system is not going to happen overnight, but it will be a process that unfolds over several stages," Bush said.

"You know, this is the best shot we got, and it's a big, bold move," he added. "I know that the days are dim right now for a lot of folks. But I firmly believe tomorrow is going to be brighter. And I thank you for having that resiliency and that -- and that drive to -- to hang in there and help this -- help this economy grow and recover."

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., earlier this week called on the Bush administration to create a temporary small-business loan program to serve as a bridge until funds kick in from the $700 billion federal bailout for Wall Street banks.

Schumer argued that, while America waits for the bailout to take effect, businesses are suffering and that it is "imperative for the federal government to help."

Steve Bloom, past chairman of the Atlanta chapter of Score, a nonprofit small business counseling group, said small businesses have always struggled to borrow money.

"Banks do not provide money to people who need money," Bloom said. That is particularly true for small-dollar loans, say something less than $400,000.

Bloom, who is in real estate, sees a great opportunity for businesses with spare cash who "can take advantage of a down market."

This is nothing like the Great Depression, he said, when unemployment was at 30 percent. Today, we are just above 6 percent.

Bloom's advice to business owners: get to know your local banker.

"When they don't need money, develop that relationship with that small banker," he said.

In the small community banks, he said, the bank president is often part of the loan committee. If they understand your business, they are more likely to loan you money.

Mitternight, who owns the air conditioner installation and repair business, has those relationships, but he says it still doesn't make doing business cheaper.

But it's not just credit that is hurting Mitternight.

A large part of his business involves maintaining and serving existing air conditioners. Many retailers have closed down stores near him in the New Orleans suburbs. With each store shut, that's one less cooling unit for him to service.

To make matters even worse, some construction projects are now scaling back or even stopping, leaving him without work.

And now at age 63, "I'm at the stage now where I was anticipating looking toward retirement, but the money, that is retirement plans, is quite uncertain."

That leaves him working longer at a job that is less stable than just a few months ago.

Mitternight was not a fan of the bailout, in part because of the provisions and "special favors" that were added on.

But the real reason is that he doesn't see how it helps "us in small businesses that are struggling."

"There are some who shouldn't get help, but then there are some on Wall Street that shouldn't be helped, the ones that put us in this situation," he said. "If I ran my business the way that they have run Wall Street, I would be out of business and nobody would be looking to bail me out."