Linda McMahon made her first trip to Connecticut as head of the Small Business Administration Friday, including a bipartisan visit to a kitchen cabinet manufacturer with the two men who defeated her in consecutive contests for the U.S. Senate.
McMahon toured Express Kitchens’ newly renovated headquarters on Weston Street in Hartford before having a discussion to with about 10 Connecticut companies that had received loans from the SBA.
“This is what I enjoy doing most as SBA’s administrator,” said McMahon, a Greenwich Republican who was seated between U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy. “I like to get out into the field, out among the people who the policies, the regulations are affecting, so we can hear from you.”
Afterward, the Democratic senators downplayed any awkwardness in joining their one-time rival.
“I’m trying to go to pains to find ways to create partnerships with this administration, and Linda is one of the people we can really work with here in Connecticut,” said Murphy, who defeated McMahon in 2012. “She’s intent on running the SBA, where as some of the people who are at these departments don’t believe in the mission. … She actually wants the SBA to work.”
“We have to put behind us any personal or political stuff and work and fight for Connecticut,” said Blumenthal, McMahon’s 2010 opponent.
McMahon’s visit to the state — which also included a stop at a chamber of commerce event in Torrington — was her 20th on a nationwide tour of the SBA’s 68 district offices. Unlike other members of Trump’s cabinet, McMahon has rarely been in the news for the wrong reasons. This week, she accompanied the president on a trip to Puerto Rico to discuss her agency’s response to Hurricane Maria.
Before her political career, McMahon helped her husband, Vince, run Stamford-based WWE, the wrestling entertainment company they grew from a regional business to a global enterprise.
“I wish I’d known about SBA when I was first running my business. It would have been a big help,” McMahon said. “Because it’s really hard when you have no bricks and mortar, especially if you’re in the entertainment business, based everything almost on cash flow, then if you need a loan or assistance for a while for a special project, it becomes a little tough.”
At Express Kitchens, McMahon, Blumenthal and Murphy were led around by Max Kothari, the co-owner of the business.
“The difference between us and the big-box stores is the fact that we are closer to customers’ needs,” he told the three. “Our ability to make it, change it and react to customers is the difference.”
In 1989 Kothari bought a hardware store in the North End of Hartford with four employees. Today, he has about 150 employees, 20 in the hardware store and 130 who work manufacturing and selling cabinets. In addition to the Weston Street headquarters, where the cabinets are built, Express Kitchens has about a dozen showrooms.
Several of the business leaders who attended Friday’s discussion with McMahon used it as an opportunity to get a line in to the Trump administration about specific concerns they had.
Danbury-based FuelCell Energy is waiting on the Department of Energy to release the majority of a $15 million grant they received in 2015, Murphy said. Blumenthal said some business owners believed fees associated with applying for Small Business Administration loans are too high.
Murphy said McMahon and the SBA could play a key role in legislation he has championed in Congress to encourage federal contractors to use U.S. manufacturers whenever possible.
“A lot of the issue is getting small businesses connected with the federal government,” he said. “We had one contractor here who had some real complaints. … It’s great to bring the SBA into this conversation on strengthening Buy America laws.”