Marianne Markowitz

Marianne Markowitz, right, regional administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, speaks to a women's business group, including Colleen Kramer, owner and president of Evergreen Supply Co. in Chicago. (June 13, 2012)

Marianne Markowitz strolls through a hallway at the regional headquarters of the U.S. Small Business Administration in the Loop, not pausing to glance at the two official portraits, one of President Barack Obama, that are the only decor on a yawning stretch of white wall.

   She stops at a towering wooden door, fiddling with her keys before turning the knob and entering a bland, taupe-and-tan space.

   "I might have the ugliest office in the whole region," she says, her grayish-blue eyes sparkling.

   It helps that she spends so little time inside it.

   Since being appointed as a regional administrator of the Small Business Administration nearly three years ago, Markowitz has traversed the Midwest, bringing the message of the SBA to small-business owners and lenders across Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

   She spends nearly half her working time traveling, swooping into meetings in Minneapolis and summits in Milwaukee. In Chicago, she visits businesses as diverse as Evergreen Supply Co., which deals with electricity and lighting, and Diana's Bananas, which produces chocolate-smothered frozen fruit.

   She heads roundtables, talking about changes since the Small Business Jobs Act was signed into law in September 2010 and how the SBA, which was proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower and created by Congress in 1953, can help entrepreneurs with access to capital, counseling and contracting.

   She gives speeches about the traction the SBA has gained in recent years, like $2.2 billion in SBA-backed loans made in her region for this fiscal year to date and the $30 billion in SBA-approved loans made nationally in fiscal year 2011, an all-time high for the agency.

   "This job is like, you're in a different place every day, there's no routine, and it's great and it's fun," said Markowitz, 45. "I've really grown to like it, but it's pushed me."

   When feeling drained, Markowitz, a finance guru and self-described introvert, finds comfort in numbers.

   "At the end of a long day of outreach, I'm like, 'Where's my spreadsheet? I just want to relax,'" Markowitz said, laughing.

   The SBA's 10 regions fall under the supervision of SBA Administrator Karen Mills, whom Obama elevated to his Cabinet this year. Mills, the daughter of Melvin and Ellen Gordon, the co-chief executives of Chicago-based Tootsie Roll Industries, appears in the other portrait outside Markowitz's office.

   "She may be a little bit quiet," Mills said of her Great Lakes Region chief. "But do not be deceived, because she is extraordinarily competent, articulate and fierce as an advocate for small business."

   Time abroad

   Markowitz spent 17 years in the private sector, including jobs with General Dynamics Corp., where she had an entry-level finance position; Mallinckrodt Inc. of St. Louis (formerly Imcera Group of Chicago), where she worked in treasury and risk analysis; and Express Scripts, where she performed integration work on an acquisition and set up the company's first professional treasury department.

   In her mid-30s, she married Jeff Markowitz and lived in Europe for about two years when he was president of CS Stars, a risk-management technology provider that is a business unit of Marsh, part of Marsh & McLennan. After six months of searching for a job in Europe, Vivendi SA hired her to do documentation work, and "I was like, 'Ugh, I really don't want this job.'"

   Markowitz and her husband lived in London then, across from Harrods department store. On her visits to Harrods' Food Halls, Markowitz began to entertain the idea of entering the culinary world.

   "(The chef was) like, 'If you want to start cooking here, it would be chopping carrots, and it would be like 12,000 (British) pounds a year,' and I was like, 'Maybe,' because I would enjoy it," said Markowitz, driving her silver Volvo XC90 along Elston Avenue as she recalled the memory. "And Jeff's like, 'Whatever you do, I don't care what you do, as long as you make enough to pay my taxes.'

   "And I was like," she paused, " 'Screw that! You should never have said that.' He was being nice, but I was like, 'Oh, my God, how demeaning!'"