Presidential Distinguished Rank Awards

Speech Date: 
Thursday, April 26, 2012
Speech Location: 
Washington, DC
As Prepared For: 
Karen G. Mills, SBA Administrator

Thank you. It’s truly an honor to be here this evening.

Let me quickly recognize those who make this event possible: My friend John Berry. Let me also thank the State Department for hosting us. As well as Carol Bonosaro and her team, who work so tirelessly to make sure this event is a success.

Please give them a round of applause.

And I would like to congratulate all of you. You are receiving the civil services highest honor—Presidential Distinguished Rank.

It’s a recognition that has been earned through years of hard work and outstanding contribution to your agencies and to our country.

So on behalf of the entire Administration, I have the distinct privilege of saying---Thank You.

Thank you for your service. For your leadership. And for your commitment to the American people.

I thought I’d start tonight by telling you how I got into public service and came to Washington.

It’s a different route than many. One I believe that provides me with a slightly different vantage point.

My background is in business. Venture capital and private equity. I spent a great deal of time working with manufacturing and food processing companies.

One day I received a call from the governor of Maine, where I live. The Brunswick Naval Air Station had been placed on the base closure list.

The governor asked me to look at ways to mitigate the impact. And to see if we could develop new industries that leveraged our region’s strengths.

We focused on Maine’s 100-year tradition of boat building. And the composite material expertise that came from our local universities. We worked with a range of government agencies, including the Department of Labor. And we formed a cluster that leveraged our region’s skill base.

Today, boats built in Maine using composite materials are being sold around the world. The success of this project was made possible because of talented government officials working hand-in-hand with local businesses and universities.

This experience provided me with an enormous appreciation for what you do…And that respect has only grown stronger during my three years at the SBA.

From my first day in Washington, the SBA’s career workforce allowed me to hit the ground running.

You have to remember this was 2009. The economy was struggling. Small businesses across the country were hurting. We didn’t have time to waste.

So before I could even find my office, we were putting in place plans to get needed capital to these businesses.

Our efforts would not have been possible without the knowledge and knowhow of our career workforce.

In Washington, our career employees were thinking creatively, innovatively and strategically about how to best leverage our tools so we could have the greatest impact and provide the most assistance.

And in the field, our staff had a unique understanding of their regions, their local financial institutions and what was needed to get small businesses in their communities the resources to weather the financial crises.

What I saw in those early days – and what I continue to believe today – is that: My career team at the SBA is as talented, as committed and as driven as any team I’ve ever worked with in the private sector.

One of them couldn’t be here tonight--James Rivera. James runs SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance. He is a recipient of this year’s award. But he had a long-planned and well-deserved family trip.

James embodies the best of public service. He has dedicated more than two decades to helping families rebuild following natural disasters.

In a given year, James oversees about 20,000 loans, totaling more than $1 billion, to homeowners and small businesses that have been hit hard by hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and other natural disaster.

I tour many of these disaster sites. I was in Nashville following the flooding. You would see families who lost everything. And James and his team are there to help put the pieces back together.

James, like all of you, is constantly working to improve and strengthen his department.

Our disaster assistance program was not where it needed to be during Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. When James became Associate Administrator, he completely rebuilt this department.

Under his leadership, we now have a 2,000-plus disaster reserve team that is prepared to deploy around the country.

I recently visited our disaster center in Dallas with James. You could see the way he has been able to build moral amongst his team. You could see the way he is able to inspire and to motivate.

And that is the same role that all of you play in your agencies. I have the honor of serving in the President’s Cabinet. In many ways, each of us in the Cabinet is a caretaker of the agencies we lead. But what you are is the heart and soul.

You provide the continuity and sage counsel not only to those running your agencies, but to those just embarking on a career in public service. You are the mentors and role models.

You’re unpaid office historians and the people we lean on to navigate tough times. And – throughout your careers – you have addressed, and continue to address, some of the most pressing challenges facing our country and the world.

Your work changes lives and transforms communities. From national security issues to resuscitating the housing market to R&D that will lead to great advances in disease prevention.

Your actions may not always make headlines, but collectively, they make our government and our country a shining example around the world.

So tonight’s award, and this recognition, is just a small bit of gratitude for your service, because we could not possibly match the contributions each of you make year in and year out to your agencies and to our country.

But know this, your work does not go unnoticed. And you have the utmost respect and appreciation of myself and my colleagues across the Cabinet.

I was at an event earlier in the week to honor innovative companies that are part of a program called Small Business Innovation Research.

The program helps companies commercialize their research and development. We were giving out awards to some of the most innovative and successful of these companies. They are called the Tibbetts Awards.

They are named after a man named Roland Tibbetts. He created a pilot program in the 70s when he worked at the National Science Foundation. His pilot program grew into today’s SBIR program.

Think about it: Because of Roland’s work, and the program he had the foresight to create, today we have companies like Qualcomm, Symantec, leading bio-tech firms and telecommunications companies.

That’s the power of the people in this room. And the type of mark you leave on our society.

President Kennedy said something in his 1961 State of the Union that I believe holds true today.

He said: “Let public service be a proud and lively career. Let every man and woman who works in any area of our national government, in any branch, at any level, be able to say with pride and with honor in future years: 'I served the United States Government in that hour of our nation's need.”

That’s the ideal we must strive for….Because the people we are honoring this evening truly are the pride of our country. Throughout your careers, each time our nation has been in need you have risen to meet the occasion. So, thank you. Thank you for the honor of being able to serve with you. And thank you for your enormous contributions to our country.