Small company owners weigh in on hiring, debate

Small business owners just can't seem to get a clear picture about what's to come — whether it's the economy or the presidential race between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney.

One day, Obama gives a performance in a presidential debate that is panned by critics and supporters alike. Advantage: Romney

Then, just two days later, news that the unemployment rate fell in September could set Obama up for a boost. Advantage: Obama.

One thing is clear: Both candidates know that small business owners are watching. During Wednesday's presidential debate, the candidates mentioned small business more than two dozen times.

The Associated Press talked with small business owners about hiring and the debate. Many say Romney is the better choice for small business, but they are also feeling good enough to do more hiring.

Here's what they had to say:

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NAME, PARTY AFFILIATION: Celeste Hilling, Republican

BUSINESS: Skin Authority, San Diego: Sells anti-aging creams and cleansers at retail stores and spas internationally and in the U.S., and online. Hilling started the company in 2002.

VOTING FOR: Romney

WHY: "I don't think Obama gets business at all," says Hilling. "Obama has never worked in the private sector in his whole life. He just doesn't understand what it takes to start a business."

DO YOU PLAN TO HIRE IN THE NEXT YEAR: Skin Authority hired two people this year, and will likely hire 3 people next year. It currently has 48 employees.

HOW WAS BUSINESS FOUR YEARS AGO: Skin Authority has had double-digit growth since it opened eight years ago, but she says growth has slowed in the last two years.

HOW IS BUSINESS NOW: Business is still growing, but not at the pace it was two years ago. "Consumers are fearful about spending," Hilling says. She says that less small businesses are opening, which makes it harder to find new spas or retailers to sell Skin Authority products. Current customers are also cautious. "People used to buy 12 items to put on the shelf," she says. "Now they're buying six and buying the other six later when they sell."

WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE DEBATE: It helped her make her decision to vote for Romney. She was undecided before the debate. "Last night was a turning point for me," Hilling said in an interview Thursday. When Romney mentioned that small businesses were being squeezed by higher taxes and rising fuel prices, she could relate. Costs at Skin Authority have risen in the past two years. She says travel costs alone have almost tripled as airlines raise airfare prices to combat rising fuel prices.

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NAME, PARTY AFFILIATION: Sue Elliott, Democrat

BUSINESS: Davidson Chocolate Co., North Carolina: Sells handmade chocolate from two stores. One is in Davidson, N.C. and the other is in Charlotte, N.C. It also sells chocolate online and to businesses, such as restaurants and hotels. She started the business in August 2008.

VOTING FOR: Obama

WHY: "The president relates to the individuals and the owners behind small businesses and the problems they face," says Elliott. She also thinks that Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have helped restore America's image around the world.

DO YOU PLAN TO HIRE IN THE NEXT YEAR: Elliott says she needs to hire four or five more people as it gets busier during the holidays. She says it has been tough finding people with the right skills to make its chocolate.

HOW WAS BUSINESS FOUR YEARS AGO: Davidson Chocolate had just opened its first store in 2008, just before Lehman Brothers collapsed. "It was scary," Elliott says. "Chocolate is not a necessity." Elliott started selling 50-cent chocolates shaped like animals to drum up business.

HOW IS BUSINESS NOW: Business has grown 33 percent since 2008. A second store was opened in 2010.

WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE DEBATE: Elliott feels that when the candidates talk about small businesses, they're really talking about businesses that are much larger than Davidson Chocolate. "We're really a micro business," she says. They have eight employees, which includes herself, her husband and her son.

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NAME, PARTY AFFILIATION: Scott Harris, undeclared

BUSINESS: Catoctin Creek, Purcellville, Va.: A distillery that makes whisky, brandy and gin. It sells the spirits in restaurants and stores in seven states. The company has five employees, including Harris and his wife. They started the company in February 2009.

VOTING FOR: Undecided

WHY: "I want to see the next couple of debates first," Harris says.

DO YOU PLAN TO HIRE: IN THE NEXT YEAR: Yes. The company plans to move into a bigger space early next year. With the bigger space and higher production, Catoctin Creek expects to hire six to 10 people to work in sales, production and in the distillery's gift shop.

WHAT WERE YOU DOING FOUR YEARS AGO: He worked in information technology for 20 years before starting Catocin Creek over 3 years ago. "I wanted to return to a job that gave me the satisfaction of producing something with my hands, and having people enjoy it," he says.

HOW IS BUSINESS NOW: In the first year Catoctin Creek sold 1,000 bottles. It sold 40,000 this year and 80,000 next year.

WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE DEBATE: "I was disappointed," says Harris. "Neither candidate made a case. There weren't a lot of specifics."

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NAME, PARTY AFFILIATION: Bill Reeder, Republican

BUSINESS: Campus Cooks, Chicago: Catering company that provides food for college fraternities and sororities. The company is at 19 campuses in 9 states. Reeder started Campus Cooks in 2004.

VOTING FOR: Romney

WHY: Because of Obama's health care policy, which he says will increase costs for his business. "I don't think he has the small business interest at heart," he says.

DO YOU PLAN TO HIRE IN THE NEXT YEAR: Campus Cooks plans to add 15 to 20 new employees next year. It currently has about 120 employees.

HOW WAS BUSINESS FOUR YEARS AGO: Good. The business has been growing since it was started eight years ago, says Reeder.

HOW IS BUSINESS NOW: Will have $10 million in sales this year. It had $1 million in sales in 2004, the company's first year.

WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE DEBATE: "Both of them didn't go into any specifics," he says. "As small business people, we kind of want to know what is going to happen next year."

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NAME, PARTY AFFILIATION: Tom Walter, Republican

BUSINESSES: He owns nine businesses. The oldest is Tasty Catering, a corporate caterer in Elk Grove Village, Ill., He started it in 1989. The other businesses include a marketing agency and a food processor that makes cookies and other baked goods for supermarkets and airlines. In all, he oversees 240 employees.

VOTING FOR: Romney

WHY: Walter has voted for politicians in both parties before, but he likes Romney's business background. "He understands what it means to be in business," says Walter. "He understands what businesses need to survive."

DO YOU PLAN TO HIRE IN THE NEXT YEAR: Walter is holding off on hiring because he isn't sure how much Obama's health care plan will cost his companies. Rising food prices is also a concern. "I don't know what is going to happen in the next few months, and the administration is not telling us what will happen," says Walter.

HOW WAS BUSINESS FOUR YEARS AGO: "Our first downturn was in 2009, but we've since recovered," says Walter.

HOW IS BUSINESS NOW: In 2012, business grew 12 percent from last year.

WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE DEBATE: Walter says that Romney came across better than Obama, and was more specific about what his plans are.

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Joseph Pisani can be reached at https://twitter.com/josephpisani

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