Both presidential candidates have stressed the importance of supporting and encouraging small business to create jobs and move the US economy forward. Globe Sunday business editor Robert Gavin asked four small-business owners from four sectors — technology, health care, retail, and professional services — to discuss economic issues and their views of the presidential race as it enters its final days. Here is the edited conversation with Paul Bardaro, partner at Malden accounting firm Rucci, Bardaro & Barrett P.C.; Meredith Flynn-Ripley, chief executive of Media Friends Inc. of Cambridge; Gordon Thompson, chief executive of Westnet Inc. of Canton; and Alberto Calvo, chief executive of Stop and Compare Supermarkets.
Globe: The big question in the election has been, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” What have the past four years been like for small businesses?
Bardaro: I’ll start, as a CPA who sees many businesses. We’ve grown just slightly ourselves. Our client base has struggled. We have some pockets of success stories, but it has been tough to maintain a bottom line, satisfy a bank. Growth capital has been very difficult to find.
Flynn-Ripley: I’ll counter a little bit of that, because in the high-tech space the last four years, at least in our sector, mobile app development, we’re seeing huge growth. One of my biggest challenges is hiring people. But it’s a booming mobile industry right now so we’re cushioned from some of the larger economic issues facing non-high tech.
Globe: Mr. Thompson, you’re in the health care industry. Has it been a good time for that?
Thompson: Well, it’s a good time for us. To echo Meredith, we have experienced growth. But to also echo Paul, the irony has been that the finance community has still been reluctant in terms of working capital for small businesses.
Globe: So credit conditions are still a problem?
Bardaro: I met with a group of bankers. They’re willing to do things if the SBA [Small Business Administration] will come in. The question now is: Can we get through the bureaucracy of the SBA and have the bank come along and support it? It’s just slowing things down.
Globe: A big concern for business is uncertainty. Have you felt that as far as trying to move ahead, grow, hire?
Calvo: I’m in the retail business. We were just looking at sales data in the Providence store. In the first week of the month, because in Rhode Island food stamps come in first week, we sold $50,000. The second week, it went down to half of that, $25,000. So the economy is still puttering along.
Thompson: Our industry is somewhat “inelastic.” The health care industry’s going to continue.
Globe: What about the health care overhaul? Is that injecting uncertainty into your business?
Thompson: If you want to talk about Obamacare, and the values of it, what the mission is, it’s consistent with the values of our company. We provide 100 percent health care from Day One. We’ve always done it. We believe healthy employees are productive employees.
Calvo: We’re a small business. We did not offer health care because of costs. But because of the new law here in Massachusetts, we’re offering 50 percent. I don’t know about Obamacare. I haven’t studied it well. But as a small business and a business with low margins, [health care] is becoming one of the top operating costs for us.
Bardaro: With regard to health care, for 24 years we provided 100 percent for our employees, and we’re now in our second [year] that we had to ask the employees to start kicking in. We had to increase the deductibles and the co-pays, and then ask them to pay 10 percent.
Calvo: So you offer about 90 percent?
Bardaro: About 90 percent reimbursement, which is generous, but we’re in a field where large international firms are doing the same thing and we need to remain competitive.
Flynn-Ripley: We’ve actually benefited immensely from the state health program. In the last four years, we’ve seen our health care costs go down.
Globe: What’s behind that? Competition?
Flynn-Ripley: Competition has lowered prices. We have more choices and our employees are benefiting from it. So I’m a big advocate of what the state program has put in place.
Calvo: We belong to RAM, Retailer’s Association of Massachusetts. Before they couldn’t offer health care and now they can. They’re going to offer lower rates because the state allows all the small businesses, retailers, to go under an umbrella under RAM.
Globe: What other issues are out there?
Bardaro: Undoubtedly, the tax code. The uncertainty, not knowing how you will be taxed Jan. 1, is huge. It’s just huge.
Calvo: One thing I would like to throw on the table — and maybe you aren’t as sensitive to this as I am — but the whole issue of immigration. I counted the other day and we’re up to 14 nationalities in our employee base. What is the liability in terms of me hiring these immigrants? I mean, they come in and they show us a Social Security and an ID. So as a business owner, I’m struggling. Should I hire this person or not?
Flynn-Ripley: So what would you want? What’s the solution in your mind?
Calvo: I’m an immigrant. I was born in Cuba. And I love this country. I came here in ’64 with five bucks in my pocket. Did all my schooling here, went to MIT. Not in any other country would I have that kind of opportunity. And we have immigrants coming here illegally. They’re establishing small businesses, restaurants, and all that. The government has to do something — I don’t know, amnesty — for the people here.
Calvo: Grandfathering, provide some more certainty, education. Immigration is, for me, the top issue.
Thompson: My biggest concern is the receptiveness of the financial community. The financial community has gotten so conservative, so reluctant, so adverse to risk. Given the bailout, I don’t think there has been a reciprocation in terms of “OK, let’s support these small businesses.”
Globe: You’re talking availability of credit and capital?
Thompson: And access. We have a certain degree of stability in our revenue stream and there’s still been a reluctance in banking.
Flynn-Ripley: In the high-tech sector, the bar is higher for a start-up in terms of proving the business model. There are more proof points than a couple of years ago. We’ve got real companies meeting real milestones and then they’re getting rewarded by funding. That said, there is more funding happening in the San Francisco area and New York area than in Boston.
Globe: Do you see different conditions, depending on who is elected?
Bardaro: Gordon touched on “too big to fail.” That doesn’t resonate with a small business — “I was small and no one cared about me failing.” That’s a difficult pill to swallow and I would think that Romney is not for the “too big to fail” proposition.
Flynn-Ripley: Our only involvement with the federal government is paying taxes. And I always wondered why there isn’t more fostering of high tech. Because high tech is a high-growth area, with nicer margins than some of the businesses here.
Calvo: Both candidates talk about small business as being the growth engine, so both of them are focused on at least talking about small business.
Thompson: What I’m more concerned about is the uncertainty of how, particularly Romney, defines the retraction of government. The reality is our government supports all of our businesses, whether you believe it or not. If you look at any of these major industries, they’re all getting big federal dollars. And there’s a trickle effect to us.
Flynn-Ripley: Is high tech getting big federal dollars? I don’t think so.
Thompson: I don’t know. But I know in the industries that I serve. United Technologies wouldn’t be in business if it wasn’t for the federal government. If you look at every major teaching institution here in terms of NIH [National Institutes of Health] dollars. Don’t underestimate the support system that our federal government is to small businesses. We may not see it as we look directly, but it’s touching us.
Globe: What about the “fiscal cliff?” Are you concerned and is it affecting your business decisions now?
Bardaro: I believe not. It goes back to the entrepreneurial spirit. Uncertainty is a terrible thing to live with, but you can’t wait for someone to tell you that you need to get moving. As far as the trickle down, Gordon, I’m in total agreement with you. The problem I have is when the federal government decides which specific businesses get the money. When they get in the business of deciding a separate and specific company to give it to, I think that’s problematic.
Calvo: I’m concerned about the deficit. Look at Europe. I hired an intern, a Spaniard. You know what the unemployment rate in Spain for youth is? Fifty percent. That’s just across the pond. Right now, I’m very angry at our government because we’re paying them to resolve problems, and they’re not. It’s not affecting us now, but it’s something that is out there, the magnitude of which I don’t know. It has to be resolved.
Flynn-Ripley: As business owners, we’re used to bringing disparate groups together, building teams, making things work, so there is frustration that there is no cooperation. There was a New York Times article recently. This writer believed that the country is more divided now than at the time of the Civil War, that there is no moderate position today. That concerns me.
Thompson: I think there’s been a specific agenda to disagree. There has been a systematic strategic plan, no matter what it is, we’re not going to agree. To me, that’s tragic.
Bardaro: As business owners, we negotiate every day. Nothing can be more frustrating than seeing our Congress not negotiate with each other.
Globe: What’s the single most important thing the next president can do for small business?
Bardaro: Single most important thing? I would say what Gordon just talked about. To ensure that we act unified in Congress.
Calvo: I agree with that.
Bardaro: Everything else will follow from there.
Calvo: This is a unique system — checks and balances. And they work. But [now] it’s too much, and there’s gridlock. That is a big, big issue
Globe: Last question, the hardest one . . .
Calvo: Who are you going to vote for?
Bardaro: Do we have to go on the record on that?
Calvo: Well, I’m going to be undecided. [He pulls out a checklist, with X’s under the candidate he believes is strongest on these issues:] Economy, leadership, big government, immigration, health care, religion, defense, world affairs.
Thompson: As a small-business owner, as much as you have to have a tolerance for ambiguity, you gravitate to certainty. With Obama, I know what I’m getting. I just don’t have certainty with Romney. Do I think there are certain things that could have been done better with Obama? Absolutely. But at least there has been consistency. Romney was my governor, I ran a business. Let’s just say, I didn’t feel him. I feel Deval Patrick. I felt Jane Swift. I felt [Paul] Cellucci. I felt [William] Weld. I knew what I was getting. They were consistent and I knew how to adjust my business. I just have an uncertainty with Romney.
Flynn-Ripley: After listening to both conventions, I wanted to vote for Clinton. Neither candidate is someone I’m excited about entirely.
Calvo: I agree with that.
Bardaro: I’m a registered independent. I’m not suggesting that Obama’s done a terrible job, but I do know what’s going to happen with the tax code with Obama. I have to change my vote to Romney as a result of the certainty [of] what I’m going to get with Obama. It’ll be Romney unless something drastically happens.
Calvo: Let me throw my list here. So you can help me decide. Immigration — Obama. Economy, understanding of business — Romney. Big government, I’m against it — Romney. Health care — equal. Religion — Romney. Defense — Obama. World affairs — Obama. . . . Tied.
More on the small business owners
PAUL BARDARO / PARTNER
Rucci, Bardaro & Barrett PC, Malden
Reason for buyng the company: Instead of working with large publicly held companies, I wanted to work closely with small entrepreneurial firms.
Best business advice received: Develop a work plan that provides what the goal is, how you’re going to accomplish that goal, and what the deliverable is going to be.
Greatest challenge facing US small business: Access to capital.
MEREDITH FLYNN-RIPLEY / CEO
MediaFriends Inc., Cambridge
Reasons for starting the company: We knew there were better ways to connect people around the world together. We built a messaging platform and launched a free texting app called HeyWire that provides people with a real US phone number that can text to any phone in the US, Canada, and China and most phones in 42 countries in a cost-effective way— free.
Best business advice received: I could achieve anything I set my mind to with hard work and commitment. Persevere when entering new markets and business opportunities.
Greatest challenge facing the US small business: Keeping up with global competition. The US is at the forefront of innovation today, but if we don’t continue to foster and nurture tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, we will start to fall behind in the global economy.
GORDON THOMPSON / CEO
Westnet Inc., Canton
Reason for starting the company: Desire to pursue an entrepreneurial venture before it would be too late in life.
Best business advice received: Maintain endurance and tolerance for ambiguity.
Greatest challenge facing US small business: Opportunities being lost to large businesses which have invested outside of USA.
ALBERTO CALVO / PRESIDENT
Stop and Compare Supermarkets, Chelsea
Reason for starting the company: To locate medium-size supermarkets in cities with a high concentration of Latino and other ethnic families. This immigrant population is currently underserved by the local bodegas, which offer limited product variety and high prices, and the big supermarkets, which do not understand the variety of Latino tastes and cultures.
Best business advice received: Tighten our belt, watch closely our operating costs, continue to look for growth opportunities and act prudently in opening new stores.
Greatest challenge facing US small business: Economic stagnation fueled by the increasing federal deficit, the uncertainty on future economic conditions, the inability of the federal government to get responsible legislation passed to deal with the deficit crisis and other national problems.
Correction:Because of a designer’s error, the paper version of this story incorrectly described the company MediaFriends Inc. The company is a technology firm with 25 employees, founded in 2009.