When President-elect Barack Obama tapped Maine businesswoman Karen Gordon Mills to lead the Small Business Administration, he said she would give America's small businesses "a partner in Washington."
But the performance of Solera Capital, a private-equity firm where Mills, 55, was managing director from 2000 to 2007, might make some wonder if she's the partner they need.
Founded in 1999, Solera has raised about $250 million for its sole fund, much of it from public pensions, but has made meager payouts to investors thus far.
The giant California pension fund CalPERS has put more than $72 million into Solera. As of June 30, it had received just $102,345 in distributions. The Oregon Public Employees Retirement System (OPERS) has invested about $51 million and has gotten back less than $2 million.
Few other 2000 vintage funds held by CalPERS or OPERS have delivered so little bang for the buck, records show.
Private equity funds are mainly the province of large, sophisticated investors who can commit cash for the long term. The funds buy interests in companies with growth potential, aiming to sell later for a profit. Funds typically have a life span of 10 to 12 years.
Solera could still pay off. But by year nine, most private equity funds are usually "very much in the harvest phase," said Pavel Savor, who teaches a course on private equity at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, where he is an assistant professor of finance.
Solera, started by Mills and two other women, has assembled an eclectic portfolio, targeting companies beyond the start-up phase that needed capital to expand. It bought controlling interests in Latina Media Ventures, the publisher of Latina magazine; organic pasta brand Annie's Homegrown; The Little Clinic, a chain of walk-in health clinics; clothing retailer Calypso Christiane Celle; and YOLO, an environmentally responsible paint manufacturer.
Yet the fund does not appear to have cashed out of any of them, either through public offerings or sales to other investors.
"Most investors would not be happy with that type of performance," Savor said. "Eventually, it's almost all about the cash out."
A spokeswoman for Obama's transition team said Mills, currently president of MMP Group, another private equity firm, would not respond to questions until her confirmation hearing, for which no date has been set. The transition team also declined to comment, either about Mills' work with Solera or more generally about her qualifications to lead the SBA.
Solera, through its public relations firm, said it does not comment publicly on the fund's performance or on employees.
The job Mills is slated to take on, leading the SBA, may never have held more importance than it does today.
Obama has said that the agency, which makes loans directly to businesses and acts as a guarantor on bank loans, must play a central role in engineering an economic turnaround. The nation's 26 million small businesses are critical engines of job growth.
Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, the top Republican on the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, has asked Obama to re-elevate the SBA to cabinet status, which it held during the Clinton administration.
To be sure, Solera is far from the only entry on Mills' resume.
Earlier in her career, she was chief operating officer of ES Jacobs and Company, another private equity firm, where she had operating control of businesses with nearly $600 million in sales. She has done consulting for McKinsey and Co. and sits on the boards of Scotts Miracle-Gro and Arrow Electronics Inc.
Since 2001, when her husband became president of Bowdoin College, Mills has been based in Brunswick, Maine, and has worked to spur public-private partnerships to boost Maine's economy. She led an initiative to persuade state legislators to pass a $50 million research and development bond in 2006. The following year, she was named to chair Gov. John Baldacci's Council on Competitiveness and the Economy.
She may have caught Obama's eye by co-authoring a paper published last year by the Brookings Institution about how the federal government could help develop economic clusters, similar businesses operating in the same geographic area.
Like many Obama appointees, Mills has ties to Harvard University. She received her undergraduate degree in economics from Radcliffe College and her MBA from Harvard Business School. More recently, she was vice chair of the Harvard Overseers, one of the university's two governing boards.
Mills also has a sweet Chicago connection: Her parents own and run Tootsie Roll Industries, headquartered in the president-elect's hometown.