It can be challenging to run a small business, particularly fighting through a recession and working to keep your company in the black and workers on the payroll – even for the 2011 Maine Small Business Persons of the Year.

But the two winners of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s award in Maine, James R. McCurdy and James K. Lynch of Maine Commercial Tire in Hermon, exemplify the perseverance that’s needed to succeed through a recession, said Jeanne Hulit, regional administrator for the SBA.

“They’re an inspiration in terms of being able to grow their business, even in challenging times,” said Hulit.

Hulit, McCurdy and Lynch joined other SBA officials and business leaders in Washington, D.C., this week for National Small Business Week. For McCurdy, president of Maine Commercial Tire, the experience gave him the understanding that others are struggling with similar business challenges and finding innovative ways to succeed.

“There’s a big population of small-business owners out there; you kind of feel you’re fighting the battle alone at home, but you come here, you find out there’s different levels of revenue, but it’s the same challenge – it’s surviving, having some money at the end of the day,” said McCurdy.

The 20-year-old company was formed to sell tires and related services to the trucking industry. For the first 18 years, the company was growing at a rate of $1 million a year, said McCurdy. But the recession hit hard, and the company had to find ways to cut costs while maintaining its work force.

“We have a solid employee base; they’re the ones who really helped carry us through,” said Lynch, vice president of the company. “They were well aware of the tough times we were in, and they came up with inventive ideas to cut costs and expenses.”

Some of the ideas that paid off the most were as simple as cutting back on energy costs by installing motion detectors to turn off lights in infrequently used parts of warehouses or hallways, he said.

The company started with 18 employees, and today has a work force of 59.

The winners from each state attended a series of workshops in D.C., ranging from ways small businesses could use social media to a presentation on disaster preparedness given by the head of the Red Cross.

Hulit noted that the SBA has four primary functions: loan guarantees, business counseling, disaster assistance and helping with access to government contracts. Under federal stimulus  funding, 30 percent of contracts went to small businesses, she said.

“We’re really doing what we can to connect the small businesses with the largest procurers of goods and services – the U.S. government,” said Hulit.

She said the Hermon company made good use of the resources available to it in order to survive the recession. Maine Commercial Tire applied for its first SBA loan last year, and used it to help consolidate debt, free up cash flow and secure a credit line, said Lynch.

Attending the conference has allowed him and McCurdy to rub elbows with other entrepreneurs, talk about their businesses and how they’ve dealt with their own tough times.

They met with U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and talked about business conditions in Maine, said McCurdy.

He said if there’s one thing other small businesses could learn from his company, it would be to remember the basics and not to overextend – particularly in a downturn.

“You can’t deal with hopes and promises, you have to deal with reality,” said McCurdy. “It may not be the kind of business you want right now – but you’ve got to persevere and conserve your resources.”