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Q & A

STEVE WADDELL : There's at Least One U.S. Bureaucrat Who Thinks Small

December 07, 1987

If you've ever punched a time clock, you've probably imagined yourself chucking the drudgery of employee life, dreamed of sitting in the boss' chair and running your own show.

Steve Waddell has had that dream, too. But instead of building his own entrepreneurial empire, the 44-year-old Huntington Beach resident helps others do just that. Waddell heads the Orange County branch of the U.S. Small Business Administration, which opened in Santa Ana in 1984.

The SBA was created by Congress in 1953 to assist, counsel and champion America's small businesses--which constitute about 98% of all businesses in the country, according to federal government estimates. The agency operates a variety of loan programs, but it does almost no direct lending. Other SBA aid includes education and management training programs.

Waddell joined the SBA in 1975 and has administered programs in Orange County for the last five years. He is a 1965 graduate of Occidental College, with a bachelor's degree in political science.

In a recent conversation with Times Staff Writer Maria L. La Ganga, Waddell discussed the flourishing small-business community underlying Orange County's economy and the challenges facing entrepreneurs here and elsewhere. \f7 Q: What is the climate here for small business?

A. Orange County is a dynamite place for small business. We've got an extremely capable labor force here. We've got an incredibly wealthy county, which is particularly good for retail-oriented, service-oriented businesses, and a fairly strong light-to-medium manufacturing base. Orange County's got an extremely strong tourism orientation, bringing in a lot of people from out of the state.

Q: Are we a better place, say, than Los Angeles, or other parts of Southern California?

A: It depends on the kind of industry. If it's one that requires railroads for transporting, then it'd probably be better in Los Angeles. If it's a high-tech orientation, requiring a lot of engineering types, high-professional types, maybe there are some real advantages in Orange County. Consistently, though, Orange County's doing very well, and all the prognoses I can come up with in terms of its future are very, very strong, in relation to the rest of the nation.

Q: In the recent past, we have seen companies, particularly in manufacturing, moving to places like San Bernardino and Riverside counties. We have seen high vacancy rates and low unemployment here. Local economists say that it's too expensive for workers to live here and that some of the lower wage job openings can't be filled. How do you see this affecting small business in Orange County?

A: I certainly wouldn't feel from my experience and from looking at things here that manufacturing firms are fleeing from Orange County. We are making a lot of loans to manufacturing firms in Orange County who are buying real estate here to expand their facilities, particularly in north Orange County and in the central part of Orange County. So that indicates to me that--although certainly there are some businesses that are suffering from the lower unemployment rate and high cost of housing and transportation constrictions--that we also have a lot of small businesses in the manufacturing area that are gaining a lot from being in Orange County and staying right here.

Q: Given the problems facing manufacturing, why would it behoove manufacturers to stay here?

A: Certainly the county has the housing and transportation problems that we talked about. But it's got some incredibly great advantages to support our economy here. That includes our climate, our proximity to the sea, which is very, very valuable to many people. There is our proximity to the mountains, the fact that many of our communities are well known nationally in terms of how they've been planned and developed. And we've got an extremely sophisticated work force in a very wealthy county.

Q: We are seeing a great number of service-based businesses come here. Is that a healthy sign? If the county becomes predominately service-based, would that hurt it in any fashion?

A: I can't see that that's necessarily negative at all. This is a national trend, and we are experiencing that here. However, we're continuing to be strong . . . in manufacturing in Orange County. There's been some erosion in manufacturing as a percentage of employment here, but it's not all that dramatic in the last six or seven years.

Q: What is the breakdown of businesses here?

A: Based on a study from First Interstate Bank, in 1982, the employment structure (was) 24% manufacturing, 25% retail and wholesale, and about 22% service. In 1987, we show manufacturing at 23%, which is a very, very small difference. In trade, we've got wholesale at 25% and service at 25%. So, sure, we see a slight decline, relatively speaking, in manufacturing. But by no stretch of the imagination can you say that manufacturing is fleeing. It's a strong, well-balanced economy right now.

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