A group of longtime business gurus is building on something they may not even realize — the old idiom that “the best things in life are free.”
At least, that’s the feedback on the free business advice, expertise and know-how the 50 or so members of SCORE’s Delaware Chapter are dispensing to business operators seeking to survive and thrive in a realm where most simply don’t.
Once called the Service Corps of Retired Executives, the local cadre now is composed of the retired, semiretired and those not even close to thinking about retirement.
SCORE took root in 1952 with a handful of DuPont retirees looking for a way to give back to the community, said Frank DeSantis, a volunteer for SCORE, former executive vice president and program manager for the Emerging Enterprise Center at the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce.
And so they did, sharing their hard-earned lessons to those looking for a bit of guidance.
Today, SCORE is offered in New Castle, Kent and Sussex counties, having helped start 126 businesses and assisted 254 clients grow revenue to the tune of $44.6 million in 2012.
Think of it as an unofficial board of directors — innovative thinkers — for startups looking to get a venture out of the chute or existing businesses in need of a strategy audit.
Still, what may come as a surprise is that the early advice to some is simply: Don’t do it.
“The majority of people we talk to, in effect, we talk out of going into business because they’re just not suited to start a business,” DeSantis said.
Small businesses traditionally fail at a rate of 56 percent in the first four years, making free business coaches all the more appealing and, in many cases, a lifeline.
“We help them make that decision fast before they waste time and money in something they are just not cut out to do,” DeSantis said. “Do you want someone to waste five or six years of their life and all of their life savings to find out they would be better off working for someone else?”
The nonprofit has grown nationally into an outfit with 11,000 volunteers in 334 chapters in 50 states logging more than 1,158,220 hours in 2012. Nationally, SCORE has helped start 37,954 businesses, created 82,206 jobs and aided 50,791 clients.
And all of this comes free to SCORE beneficiaries, be they an entrepreneur with a dream worth embracing or abandoning or a business owner in need of objective advice or a new direction.
“We’re probably the best-kept secret in Delaware,” said Bob O’Brien, SCORE president, on a recent stop to Mercantile Press, a 129-year-old fourth-generation printing operation in Wilmington.
Even a company with that heritage turned to SCORE in 2009. It was the height of the recession, and Coleman “Corky” Bye III knew he had to refocus company priorities as the print industry continued to struggle.
“We decided to move into a different type of printing labels, multifold labels, much like in herbicides, expanded content labels,” Bye said of the company that has manufactured such labels for numerous pharmaceutical companies. “It was all in my head, but to get it down on paper, that’s another thing. Bob (O’Brien) helped in getting my thoughts down and concise so we could communicate it to others.”
It isn’t unusual for a small business owner to develop a myopic view, a love affair with the business itself, making it challenging to step back and look beyond the day, the week, the month of operation and into the future.
That’s where O’Brien stepped in with an objective view, setting forth a strategy with Bye with growth spelled out clearly on the agenda.
“He’s not here to commiserate,” Bye said. “When you have someone who comes in and takes a genuine interest in your business and says ‘I’m here to help,’ you now have to be accountable. It behooves me to go through the exercises like homework. I have someone to hold me accountable.”
Under O’Brien’s deft hand, Bye has taken a brick-and-mortar shop on Bellevue Avenue, established by his two great uncles in 1884 and later run by his father, now 83, to new heights.
For his work at Mercantile Press, the oldest printing company in Delaware, Bye has been named Small Business Administration‘s Small Business Person of the Year. The honor brought a special visit last month by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., offering congratulations.
“Coleman wanted to have growth with the business, but since all the financial resources had virtually been shut off, he was having trouble (for the first time) getting financing to grow the business and he needed some new equipment,” O’Brien recalled. “So I helped him look at ways in which he could free up his time so he could focus on strategy for growth.”
Giving existing employees a little more authority went a long way.
“That freed up his time and that’s one of the things that SCORE mentors typically do, working with small business owners to help them figure out how they can work on their business rather than in their business,” O’Brien said. “With Coleman, I worked with him on the strategic plan, started to get it implemented and then he went off on his own. Now that he’s getting some growth underway we will be working together again to figure out how to market this growth.”
The so-called informal board of directors approach has also been of great benefit to Sue Bowlby and her son, Don, of Corexcel, a Wilmington company that provides training materials, employee assessments and online courses in business skills and health care.
Bowlby bought the business in 1997 when it brought in about $100,000 in revenue, offering in-person training classes. Since then, the company has redirected its focus to online offerings, adapting to changes in digital demand and landscape. In 2012, the company reached $1.2 million in revenue.
For much of that, a noticeably choked up Bowlby thanks her SCORE mentors, including DeSantis and Steve DeVeber.
“We were maybe a year old when we first started meeting with them,” Bowlby recalled. “I always laughed because they always asked me questions I didn’t want to have to answer.”
The coaches assessed Corexcel’s marketing, pricing and business plan, Bowlby said, and developed strategies to improve it all.
“They understand our trends, our products, our history,” she said. “They’ve seen us almost broke and kind of propped me up when things were not going well. They really have been a very big part (of Corexcel’s success).”
SCORE is actively seeking volunteer mentors. To learn more, visit www.scoredelaware.org