AUGUSTA – George Gervais has four boxes on his desk: “Urgent,” “Sign,” “In,” and “Out.”

The “Urgent” box is full.

So is the “In” box.

It’s a busy time for Gervais, who at 45 has risen quickly through the ranks of the state Department of Economic and Community Development. After spending 22 years in the restaurant business, Gervais got his first job in state government in 2008. Three years later, he’s the commissioner of his department.

“I can’t stress enough the importance — I don’t care where you are, in or outside of state government — of developing relationships,” he said in a recent interview. “And putting yourself in others’ shoes is so important. I think I do that naturally now, and that’s from being in the restaurant business for so long.”

The piles on his desk are the reason he will not go to South America in November on a trade mission sponsored by the Maine International Trade Center. Gov. Paul LePage announced recently that neither he nor Gervais will go on the mission.

“We’ve got too much going on here,” Gervais said. “I know there’s concern about us pulling out of the trade mission, but we feel that is the role of the Maine International Trade Center. We have got to attend to some of the issues here that are more to the core of growing the economy.”

Gervais began his government service in the Department of Economic and Community Development as a business development specialist working out of the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments office in Fairfield. Ken Young, executive director of the council, described Gervais as tireless.

“He’s very affable,” he said. “He’s the kind of person you almost automatically like. That is critical. Business deals are made on whether people like each other in the end.”

A year later, when an assistant-to-the-commissioner position opened up, Gervais became a legislative liaison for the department. He had avoided talking politics at his restaurants, but found that he loved working the halls of the State House to try to advance policies.

Earlier this year, he stepped in as acting commissioner of the department after Philip Congdon resigned in April amid controversy over statements he made during a trip to Aroostook County. Congdon reportedly insulted Native Americans and the work ethic of people who live in the county during public and private meetings.

With Congdon’s departure, Gervais said, he knew there were administration priorities that hadn’t been addressed, so he jumped in.

A major priority of LePage’s was creating an account-executives unit designed to help businesses navigate through government red tape. Gervais immediately got things rolling to get those positions filled and was offered the Cabinet-level job, with an annual salary of $102,689. He became commissioner in June.

The people who work in the account-executives unit — there will be four at department headquarters and three in regional offices — will report directly to Gervais and the governor.

“I know this discussion has gone on for decades about this one-stop shopping theory,” he said. “I haven’t seen it really successfully pulled off. I do want to give businesses a point of contact, one person they can rely on, they can always call if they have an issue with state government.”

In particular, Gervais wants to focus on getting more help to Washington and Aroostook counties.

“If we try to service those far-reaching areas from Augusta,” he said, “we aren’t doing the best job we could be.”

HIS FORMATIVE YEARS

Gervais was born in Bangor and grew up in Hampden, where he lives with his wife, Julene, and their children, ages 16 and 6, with another on the way.

He grew up in the restaurant business, learning every aspect of the trade. It took him seven years to get through college as he tried to manage work and classes. He did find time to play lead and bass guitar and drums in a rock band while in college.

He says he can play “most anything as long as I can breathe and play it at the same time.”

A 1984 graduate of Hampden Academy, Gervais graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in business administration with a concentration in finance. After college, he took on an even larger role in his father’s restaurants.

“I dove headfirst into the family business,” he said. “You learn a lot. Somebody who’s had any success in the restaurant business can handle a lot.”

That has prepared him well for his current job.

“I haven’t hit a point where I’ve felt overloaded,” he said. “It still doesn’t compare to what was coming at me, running three different restaurants.”

After learning from his father, Gervais opened his own restaurants, Chocolate Grille in Old Town and Searsport, and EVO Italian Brick Oven in Bangor. He said two did well, one did not.

“It’s those lessons that I think really position me to help businesses as much as I can in this job,” he said.

IDENTIFYING AREAS FOR GROWTH

When it comes to the state’s largest industry, tourism, Gervais sees an opportunity to turn tourists into full-time business owners.

“I believe that it is through tourism that we can also attract other industry,” he said. “There are a lot of people who vacation in Maine, fall in love with the state and want to be here more than just for a week during a vacation.”

One way to improve the state’s economy is to raise the average income by attracting better-paying jobs to the state, he said.

“No matter what industry we’re speaking of, I think tourism can play a part,” he said.

On the manufacturing side, Gervais said he believes there could be a strong base in Maine that is thriving 20 years from now. To get there, the state must find a way to lower energy costs, one of the administration’s goals for the legislative session that starts in January.

“You’re dealing with a very determined administration that will do whatever we can to make it easy for businesses to flourish here,” he said.

Gervais has also identified innovation and technology as sectors that could grow in Maine, particularly at the site of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station. There’s room for 15,000 jobs there. Attracting even half of that would be an accomplishment, he said.

Gervais is one of the Cabinet members who have traveled frequently to LePage’s Capitol for a Day town hall meetings, where many of the questions focus on jobs and the economy. He credits his wife with giving him the flexibility to travel the state and helping him maintain a good balance between work and his private life.

“Every weekend feels like a vacation because in the restaurant business, it’s seven days a week,” he said. “I’m on the phone on the weekend, but it’s different. You’re moving toward a goal that helps so many people.”

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

[email protected]