Art Stevens, Loan & Investment Officer

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Art Stevens, Loan & Investment Officer

You’ve been at CEI for over twenty years, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen with respect to CEI’s lending practices and rural economic development trends in Maine over that time?

I joined CEI’s Targeted Opportunities (Workforce) program in 1992 to coordinate a federally funded three year welfare to work demonstration project. My interactions with CEI financed businesses started then, primarily working with Maine manufacturers hiring low-income individuals into newly created jobs as a result of CEI’s commercial loan. During my more than 14 years with the program I worked closely with CEI Loan Officers, assisting in the pre-loan vetting and establishing working relationships with employers, often acting as a virtual human resource professional for the smaller employers in need of assistance. I joined CEI’s Loan Department in 2007 with the aim of becoming a full-fledged loan officer all the while keeping my focus on the mission. As far as changes to CEI’s lending practices, we’ve stuck to our knitting in promoting projects that are important to farms, fish and forestry and our Triple Bottom Line approach, building a solid book of business by sticking to our core values, which is the lens with which we look at every deal. CEI is still a champion of the start-up entrepreneur and we have a strong record of deploying the SBA Microloan.  Areas that seem to be experiencing growth from my vantage point include renewable energy projects such as solar photo-voltaic, mill space redevelopment for mixed-use and small family farm businesses, often organic, dotting the regional landscape.

Maine is a state with significant natural resources. Historically, many of Maine’s natural resources have been exported out of state where they are processed and turned into “value add” products. Recently, there has been increased discussion about creating more value add products here in Maine. Can you talk about that trend and what you see as both opportunities and challenges for Maine when it comes to creating value add products? 

Here in Maine we’re blessed with an abundance of access to the ocean and forest land.  Beyond the headlines about lobster and bio-fuel (pellets), there are other exciting things happening around aquaculture and value-added agricultural products. Two examples are companies I’ve loaned to are: Ocean Approved, a Portland company adding value to kelp, a super food aqua-farmed and harvested in the clean waters of coastal Maine. They’re at the tip of the iceberg right now and have attracted investors to grow the business and are beginning to add new products for the consumer. CEI was there very early to help the company with the start-up and follow-on capital necessary to get through the R&D and pre-revenue phase of the business as they identified their market and perfected the product. The Gelato Fiasco came to CEI as a small, determined company making gelato using an old-school, traditional ‘hot process’ method in their single store in Brunswick, Maine. Made from milk and cream from Maine family farms and as many other Maine foods as they can source, Gelato Fiasco has expanded to include a second store in Portland and a fast growing pint business with distribution to 48 states, based at the company’s Brunswick Flavor Foundry. Both of these companies required patient capital and have been successful in raising equity to grow their respective businesses. You can’t grow on debt alone, equity is showing up more and more, and therein lies the challenge for the value-add market. Demonstrating the market opportunity is a significant hurdle in attracting any form of capital.

What’s a typical day like for you at CEI?

It runs the gamut really. On any given day I could be discussing a proprietary technology with an up and coming entrepreneur, reviewing a business plan and financials for a new applicant or meeting with one of CEI’s excellent business counselors with regard to specific assistance that may be needed for an existing client. There’s significant marketing and outreach necessary to meet new customers and no shortage of partner sponsored events to attend throughout the year to do so. In lending we interface with several people to get each loan originated and ultimately closed, whether it be a partner lender that may be sharing the project, equity investor(s), legal counsel in reviewing legal documents, insurance agents, etc.  As well, it takes a dedicated team internally to get from intake to the finish line on each loan regardless of size, including Loan Administration, Loan Servicing and Accounting from the transactional side, and Workforce Solutions, Sustainable Agriculture and Working Waterfront from the programmatic side. All are critical components to the process and not one dollar could be deployed without this hard working team.

A “fun fact” about yourself?

I learned to play the drums when I was in grade school, and have been lucky enough to play semi-professionally over the years. I often draw parallels between drumming and community development lending.  A drummer’s job is to keep things moving, at the appropriate tempo, while paying constant attention to your band mates ensuring that every song ends well. If anyone gets lost, they look to the drummer to get back on track because the drummer is keeping count.