2016-02-01 / Features

Knowing the Score

Retired executives give back to their community by mentoring the next generation of small business owners.
Maggie Anderson

There’s a secret to starting a business in State College. It’s not catering to college students, securing the trademark for the Nittany Lion or even hiring a strong marketing team. It’s retirees. SCORE Central Pennsylvania, a chapter of the national Service Corps of Retired Executives, has been helping businesses — both startups and companies looking to expand — since its founding in 1991. Today, it’s hard to throw a rock and not hit a business that has tapped into the expertise offered by the nonprofit.

Take Tammy Winters, owner of the professional organizing company The Clutterfish. Her business origin story is similar to that of many startups. “I started out with a great idea and something I was already doing. I wanted to start a business and turn it official so I could actually collect money and not just do it for friends,” she says. “I have never owned a business before. I’ve always worked for someone else.”

Though she’s a natural organizer, Winters had no idea where to start with opening a business, so she contacted SCORE. She was matched with Bob Griffin, chairman of the SCORE chapter and a former businessman and professor. “Bob pretty much helped me start to finish on everything,” Winters says. “It was a lot of hand-holding for me, and he’s really good at that!” After their initial meeting, Winters and Griffin set up a schedule to meet every two weeks, and together they attended one of SCORE’s workshops, “Business Basics A to Z.”

Winters launched her business about six months later. “The biggest surprise for me was how easy it was,” she says. “I was not expecting to open a business in less than a year with no headaches.”
That lack of headaches is from what Winters calls “hand-holding” but what is actually the core of the organization — expertise and advice borne out of decades of experience by a group of dedicated SCORE Central Pennsylvania Chairman Bob Griffin hands out business advice.SCORE Central Pennsylvania Chairman Bob Griffin hands out business advice.volunteers, since all of the organization’s services are free. Locals looking for business advice are matched with SCORE volunteers according to their areas of knowledge. “We can put a pretty powerful team together,” says Griffin. “If you were paying for it on the outside, it would probably be in the $3,000- to $5,000-a-day range to get that kind of expertise.”

The mentors, as they’re called, range from former CEOs to Penn State professors, and their knowledge bases more than cover what a young entrepreneur needs to know. But one thing unites them. “One of the big things that happens in the mentorship is when somebody comes in and tells you that they want to start this business, and they want to do it with their girlfriend,” says Griffin. “You have to tell them this doesn’t smell good. You end up telling them all the things that can go wrong. You have to have the kind of person that can give bad news without totally blowing you apart.”

This sage advice sometimes comes from the main mentor, or, more often than not, the mentor will bring other SCORE members into the fold to help out with legal, financial or insurance issues. Although, to be clear, the mentors cannot offer actual counsel, only point clients in the right direction and make them aware of potential concerns. With about 45 SCORE volunteers — some of whom are interns and “resource people” who are not retired but want to help out — all the facets of opening a new business or expanding an existing one can be covered, even ones a fledgling entrepreneur might not know about.

The biggest surprise for me was how easy it was. I was not expecting to open a business in less than a year with no headaches.”
—Tammy Winters

“You don’t know what you don’t know! What you don’t know can hurt you,” says Sophie Penney, president of SW Coaching and Consulting. “Going through the process of working with someone from SCORE, I was able to start my business a lot more efficiently and effectively than I would have done otherwise. There’s a million books out there, but it’s not necessarily as fruitful and direct as sitting down with someone who has experience with doing this.”

Penney’s business is two-fold: one part consulting on fundraising and the other part certified legacy navigator. “That means that I’m trained to assist individuals in writing a legacy letter or ethical will,” she says. “That’s more about your values than about your valuables.” She has experience in fundraising, so that part seemed to be a no-brainer, but the legacy navigation was a bit trickier. “People have been writing ethical wills for centuries,” Penney says. “It comes out of Jewish tradition, but this is a more secular version of it. It’s still fairly new to a lot of people.”

Penney met with Griffin for almost two years, working on her business plan and the details of a startup. “It was very important that we met regularly so that I was continuing to make progress,” she says. “He was a great encourager and supporter.”

Griffin says that working on a business plan is of the utmost importance, but it’s also the task that least excites potential business owners. “Nobody wants to write a business plan because they think of this voluminous thing that they have to sit down and write, but we attempt to have them do it in stages,” he says. “Ultimately, somewhere along the line you’re going to have to generate this business plan to show to other people.”

As for SCORE’s business plan, it’s all based on donations. “SCORE is really a partnership of the community,” says Griffin. “The banks contribute money to us to do advertising. We get some money from the government, $2,000 a year, just enough to — I was going to say keep the lights on, but we get that given to us, too. The television station where our office is gives us Internet, light and heat. The SBA gives us our phone connection. The bank gives us a meeting room. Everybody recognizes the importance of the organization and supports us the best they can.”

That’s probably because SCORE supports the community as well. In addition to the mentorships, the organization holds monthly workshops at Penn National Bank on Benner Pike, from the “Business Basics A to Z” introductory workshop that Winters attended with Griffin to “Beyond the Basics” workshops on varying topics, such as “The Business of Art” or “Changes in Media: How to Develop an Ad Campaign with Little Money.” This month, SCORE will begin a partnership with Kish Bank in which mentors will sit in the lobby of the multi-purpose bank building on Green Tech Drive to offer assistance to anyone who might want it. Slated to run every other Saturday, the partnership will begin Feb. 20. “Their customers come in, maybe they’re a small business, maybe their customers will want this,” says Griffin.
Thomas Minichiello, vice president and Centre County market manager at Kish, recognizes the value in such a partnership. “What SCORE does aligns well with what we do,” he says. “They add so much value — not only for our customers, but for the whole community.”

And that value includes offering additional services as needed, like they did for Penney as she was starting her legacy navigation business. “When I was getting ready to get serious about launching, I had an opportunity to present to the local SCORE group about my business,” she says. “I had a high-impact experience because they were reacting to the presentation that I was doing, which was essentially a marketing presentation, and were able to give me some good things to think about in terms of how well the presentation was or wasn’t coming across, who might be prospects for this type of business and those sorts of things.”

While Griffin worked with Penney for almost two years, some local business owners have benefited from just one session with a mentor. Andrew Walker, a chiropractor with a focus in applied kinesiology and holistic healing, contacted SCORE when he was starting his own practice, practically right after finishing chiropractic school. “It was my first time starting my own business, so he helped me figure out exactly what I needed to do to get that going,” says Walker, who met with SCORE mentor Bill Asbury, Penn State’s former vice president of student affairs and a former Pittsburgh Steelers running back.

“I’m a big picture guy, so I don’t think about the little things,” says Walker. “He helped me create a guide of all the little things I needed to do. Without them, I would have been entirely lost.”
The two met for only an hour, but Walker says that time was indispensable. “I hate researching stuff online. I want someone to talk to. He gave me a blueprint of what I needed to do to get the business up and running.”

It is this sharing of knowledge, whether for an hour or a year, that keeps small businesses thriving in our community. SCORE helps create bonds between a generation that has built success and one that hopes to do so, adding significant value to the Centre region. The local SCORE chapter works with businesses from Clearfield to Williamsport and has fans everywhere in between.

“I think the best advice I got was that you have to decide at some point that you’re going to, and when you’re going to, pull the trigger,” says Penney. “You can’t just keep having the idea and planning and planning. Those background things and that preparation are all important, but at some point you have to decide to launch this thing and say, ‘I’m going to take a step out and hope there’s ground beneath it!’” •SCM

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