I thought of Carmen and Anna Maria Vona over the holidays, and not just because I spent an inordinate amount of time in my cramped and ordinary kitchen.
The Vonas run Carmana Designs, a nationally regarded high-end cabinet company. I salivated over their woodwork in March when I visited the firm's 30,000-square-foot headquarters in the old Abbott's Dairy in South Philadelphia.
Back then, the Vonas fretted over contributing to the recession. With residential and commercial construction in a deep freeze, Carmana reluctantly laid off 14 employees.
"When your guys aren't working, they're not buying coffee at Wawa, not going down to the sandwich shop at the corner," Anna Maria lamented. "We cut Dumpster pickup from once a week to every other week to once a month. That's less money for the Dumpster company."
The couple came up with a creative solution to the recession: With an equity loan, they could rehire skilled tradespeople and pay them to craft historic doors and renovate Carmana's cavernous interior for future tenants. The Vonas would repay the loan with money from a few renters, simultaneously reinvesting in and (hopefully) growing their business during the down time.
"It would be," Anna Maria gushed, "our own economic stimulus package."
Coming up empty
Carmana's phones lit up after my column ran. Waiting on each line was a lender - big bankers, community bankers, even one "predatory slimeball" - eager to do business with the couple.
"We tried five of them," Anna Maria recalled when we caught up over Christmas. "They wanted every document in the world - and we've been in business 29 years! I wasted an entire month, but every single bank said, 'No.' "
The couple presumed the $1 million in upgrades and equipment they had poured into the old dairy would be sufficient collateral. The bankers thought otherwise.
"They all wanted to see additional income, long-term leases from more commercial tenants," she said. "Their feeling was, 'You're struggling. How are you going to pay us back?' I guess I don't blame them. I probably wouldn't loan money to people doing a third of the business they used to do."
But isn't everyone struggling? And didn't President Obama just meet with bankers, begging them to loosen the purse strings and get the cash flowing again to keep companies like Carmana afloat?
Yes, but in the same breath regulators also warn banks to hold on to more of their money.
"Banks want to lend, but they're being very cautious, and they're getting a lot of conflicting messages," explained Rick Weiss, a banking analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott.
"And a kitchen cabinetmaker is probably not the most attractive business right now," he added. "Who the heck is spending money on fancy kitchens in a recession?"
Going it alone
Carmana has enough millwork "to squeak by," but Anna Maria told me that she had spent much of last year turning bad karma into goodwill.
She used to pay $150 a month to get rid of sawdust. Now she donates it to a carriage company for use in the horse stables.
In the summer, she offered scrap wood to gardeners to stake tomatoes; in the winter, she gave it to operators of Christmas-tree stands to use for barrel fires to stay warm.
If there's an upshot to the recession, she told me, it's that humility is contagious.
"Everyone's helping each other more. People are nicer. I feel like I'm going to cry, but I've just forged wonderful, stronger relationships because we're all in the same boat and we all realize how dependent we are on each other."
As for her grand stimulus plan? Abandoned, for now.
"We gave up on trying to find a loan. We'll eke it out on our own," she groused. "We're all still paying for the sloppiness of bankers."