President's Address To Businessmen Omits Small Business Owners

President Obama is making moves to mend the White House's rocky relationship with business leaders. In a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Monday he promised to get rid of unnecessary regulations and simplify the tax code. Samll business owners Andy Shallal, of Washington, DC's Busboys and Poets and Eatonville Restaurants, and Renee Amoore, founder and president of the Amoore Group share their perspective on how small businesses have been faring in the current economic climate and how President Obama can step in to help.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Along with watching for touchdowns, a lot of people watch the Super Bowl just for the commercials. But one Super Bowl ad struck a harsh note with a certain segment of the population. We'll talk about that a little later in the program.

But first, to President Obama and his move to score points with business leaders and get them hiring. He spoke yesterday to a gathering at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and he promised to get rid of unnecessary regulations and simplify the tax code. He asked business women and men to respond in kind.

BARACK OBAMA: But I want to be clear, even as we make America the best place on earth to do business, businesses also have a responsibility to America.

MARTIN: The president said U.S. businesses need to stop stockpiling cash and start doing more to hire and innovate with tax breaks and other means of government support. The White House and the Chamber of Commerce have had a rocky relationship since Mr. Obama took office. The group spent more than $50 million to paint Obama as anti-business during the midterm election campaign.

But we decided to go in a different direction. We decided to consult with two small business leaders. They've been on the program before to talk about how they are fairing in the current economic climate. With us once again, Andy Shallal, owner of a group of restaurants called Eatonville and Busboys and Poets in the Washington, D.C. area. He's also chairman of Think Local First. That's a business alliance to, as the name implies, promote local businesses.

Also joining us from Philadelphia is Renee Amoore. She's founder and president of the Amoore Group, which oversees two nonprofit and two for-profit companies. Many people may remember her from her speaking role at the Republican National Convention in 2008. Welcome to you both. Thank you both for joining us once again.

RENEE AMOORE: Thank you for having me.

ANDY SHALLAL: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Andy, you are in the process of opening a fifth restaurant. You currently own four, so business must be pretty good.

SHALLAL: It is pretty good. I think for some segments of the economy it is pretty good, and some areas in the country it's pretty good. But I'm struck at the speech that Obama had where he said, you know, businesses need to stop stockpiling cash. The businesses that I know are not stockpiling cash. They're barely able to make it.

MARTIN: So there's a big difference between, you think, the sort of the environment for big businesses and for small businesses.

SHALLAL: Absolutely.

MARTIN: When we talked before, you talked a lot about - and we've talked over the course of the documented recession, or the time period that economists have said that we've been in recession. And you were one of the first people to talk to us about the difficulty in getting credit, particularly for small businesses. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

SHALLAL: It's opened up a little bit more at this point. But you have to have really super, super good credit and a great track record. That's really one of the biggest hurdles that I speak when I speak to small businesses, is that they can't really start up anything new. If somebody has not been in business for many, many years, has a huge track record, has a house to put on hock, or a car or something, as collateral, they're not able to get the money.

MARTIN: I want to hear your perspective on how President Obama is addressing those challenges. But I want to hear from Renee first. Renee, how are things in your world?

AMOORE: Well, you know, I have to agree with Andy 100 percent. I really took issue to President Obama talking about the stockpiling cash. Owning two not-for-profits is very difficult. We deal with kids with disabilities. We deal with ex-offenders that come out from prison. We work in the prisons as a not- for-profit company and it's been very difficult, as he's saying, alluding to as far as getting credit.

We've been in business for over 12 years. But it's really difficult in the not- for-profit world, and especially we're doing, you know, things with people. You know, it's human capital. We're trying to help lives make a difference. And I think that, you know, there's not enough mentoring program, there's not enough resources. You have to look at the whole tax regulations for not-for-profits individuals. And it has not been helpful at all.

And we're not sitting on the sidelines. I have 250 staff, I'd love to have more, but I'm not going to go out there and do something when you're not giving me support.

MARTIN: Well, hold on a second, I want to hear a little bit more about what you think the government should be doing. But the president's not making it up. I mean he's saying that American companies have nearly $2 trillion sitting on their balance sheets. And it's also a fact that bonuses, large bonuses have returned to some sectors, particularly on Wall Street, not other areas. So, Renee, what about that?

AMOORE: You know, again, going back to Andy, I'm loving him to death, that's not small business, OK? We're a small business. We're not - I don't have a bonus of a half million dollars or a million dollars, whatever. I give whatever I can to my staff, you know. And I also have two for-profits. But that - and they're in construction. If you look at construction, that's not doing all that great right now. It's improving, but it hasn't gotten the point where it has been or where it needs to be.

MARTIN: What about the credit issues that we were talking about earlier? Andy, your business is mainly cash anyway. So you've never really relied on credit lines to run your business. But, Renee, what about you?

AMOORE: We absolutely do. Again, with not-for-profits, I sit on the bank board, and thank God, because they've been real helpful. But it's those folks out there that don't have those opportunities that may not have a house or, you know, have those things that they're able to put up for equity, things like that. And so that is a problem. We have to look at it. And banks are saying, well, we can't do it because the government is saying we can't do this and do that.

So, again, it goes back to the regulations. The president has to look to regulations. He has to get the Small Business Administration more involved out there working with companies, especially minority firms and women-owned businesses. You know, we're the fastest growing. We want to do more and different things and people are not paying attention.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're checking in with two small business owners that we visited with before. We're getting their reaction to President Obama's speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce yesterday.

With us, Andy Shallal. He owns a chain of restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area. And Renee Amoore, she owns two for-profit and two nonprofit operations in the Philadelphia area. And so, I'd like to ask each of you about some of the moves that President Obama has made recently, like going to the Chamber of Commerce. I mean his comments were kind of lighthearted in a way. He said, maybe I should have brought you a fruitcake when I first came into office.

SHALLAL: Oh, he brought far more than a fruitcake. He brought them Bill Daley. I mean this is...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: He's the new chief of staff.

SHALLAL: This is, you know, hey...

MARTIN: Bill Daley, a former Commerce secretary who's now going to be his chief of staff.

SHALLAL: Exactly.

AMOORE: Yeah.

SHALLAL: It's huge. I mean this is the biggest overture he can give to a big business. You know, the fact that he walked across the street to go to the Chamber of Commerce really did not play very big with small business here in this city.

AMOORE: Or here.

SHALLAL: Or - exactly.

MARTIN: Andy, you're also a progressive.

SHALLAL: Right.

MARTIN: In addition to being - and a Democrat, I assume, in addition to being a small business owner - and there are a lot of people on the progressive side who are very worried about this, who feel that the president's about to give away the store to big business. Are you - do you share that concern? Even as a business owner yourself.

SHALLAL: I think, you know, the idea that when we talk to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or when the president speaks to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that he's representing business. He's representing big business. Let's be clear here. This is not - the average mom and pop down the street from the White House had nothing to do with what the president talked about. He would have done much better to actually walk in there and speak to them.

AMOORE: Exactly.

SHALLAL: And say, what is it that you need? The big business already has a head start. I mean, they're running so far ahead of small business, even if you level the playing field, it's way lopsided for small business.

MARTIN: What about his - what he says is his new focus on repealing unnecessary regulations? For example, one of the issues that small businesses were very concerned about is a provision in the health care overhaul law that would require them to generate documents or a document for any purchase over $600. And many people were saying that's - we are exactly the people who will be hurt by this because we do this paperwork ourselves. Do you see those initiatives as making sense or do you think that that's just rhetoric?

SHALLAL: I'll have to tell you, I've been in business for quite some time, but I can barely keep up with all this stuff, honestly.

AMOORE: Right.

SHALLAL: I mean, before some regulation gets put through, there's already something else that's in the pipelines. And I'm trying to catch up with the first one. And the whole idea of these types of regulations and hurdles and things that small businesses have to cross, most small businesses don't have a dedicated team to be able to file these things and take care of them.

If you miss a deadline for a tax filing, it's a 10 percent penalty right off the bat. It's huge. If you're delayed in construction, as I am right now, with my new location...

AMOORE: Exactly.

SHALLAL: Every month is $20,000 for me - it costs me because that's rent I have to pay without any income. So, the hurdles that we have to deal with - not just on a federal level, that's one thing, but at a local level - is really, really onerous and very complicated.

MARTIN: So, his comments really had nothing to do with you. It didn't really change your life in any way.

SHALLAL: I bet you none of the small businesses even paid attention to what he was talking about. When he said Chamber of Commerce, they don't know whether it's a musical group, whether it's a, you know.

MARTIN: Right.

SHALLAL: It is what it is.

MARTIN: Renee, go ahead.

AMOORE: What has he done for us lately? That's where I'm at.

SHALLAL: Exactly, exactly.

AMOORE: You know, we talk about hope and change. I have a big attitude, trust me. You know, because you are always behind. We have a construction company and if they're behind, we're behind. But if we don't pay our taxes, of course, that's an issue, you know. And then you get penalized.

Again, putting in new regulations, he's not talking to small businesses. It's all about the big businesses. It's all about who's going to help him. This was all about, OK, 2012 is coming close, I need to make some friends, you know, let me shake some hands.

SHALLAL: Well, I'm loving Renee, too. I have tell you.

AMOORE: Please. I can't take it.

SHALLAL: Renee, you and I are going to be great friends here.

AMOORE: I want to - can I eat at your restaurant free?

SHALLAL: Absolutely. I want to come up to Philly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AMOORE: Me and Michel.

MARTIN: We're having some bipartisan civility here right now.

AMOORE: Yeah, because definitely to the Republican Party, he hasn't done anything for me.

MARTIN: Well, talk to me about the - on the Republican side, Renee, just overall from your perspective as a business owner, as a Republican, you know, obviously, you know, there are other people you would like to see in the White House right now.

AMOORE: Thank you.

MARTIN: But what could this president be doing right now in your view that would be more helpful than what you're hearing here?

AMOORE: Right now, talking to small businesses. He doesn't even have to come. Send the Small Business Administration. Do something. Sit down and say, what are your needs? What will make you be able to go out and hire more people to bring in, you know, to think outside the box? How can we give you some mentoring help? How can we help you go through that process? How can we help you with the regulations? And don't even talk about benefits and giving it to staff and those type of things.

Again, we're not large business. Even if he does put regulations in, that's going to take forever. You got to go through legislation and do those things. Of course, you're going to have issues because Republican has the House, the Democrats have a small portion in the Senate, so there's going to be some, you know, problems back and forth. But I'm thinking he's in charge. He needs to let people know we need to do something and do it now and he's not saying that.

MARTIN: OK, Andy, final thought from you. What could he say that...

SHALLAL: He needs to sort of get away from the vice grip of big business. It's really, really complicated. And the fact of the matter is, that small business in this country is what provides jobs. It's a place where most innovation comes from.

AMOORE: That's right.

SHALLAL: And if we continue to sort of put down small business, we're going to lose our edge in the world.

MARTIN: Andy Shallal is the owner of a chain of restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area, including Busboys and Poets and Eatonville. He's also the chair of Think Local First. That's a D.C. business alliance to support local businesses. Renee Amoore is the founder and president of the Amoore Group and she runs two for-profit and two nonprofit businesses in the Philadelphia area. Thank you both so much for joining us.

AMOORE: Thank you for having me.

SHALLAL: It was my pleasure.

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