Drawing on the expertise of retired and semi-retired business owners and executives, the nonprofit offers start-ups and existing small businesses free counseling and low-cost workshops.
“SCORE is available to help you get moving in a direction where you can become sufficient at your own business,” said Judy Thome, chair of the Grand Rapids SCORE chapter.
The local chapter currently has 24 members, 16 of whom serve as counselors and mentors. Its parent organization has 389 chapters and more than 12,000 volunteer counselors nationwide.
Thome pointed out that local counselors have years of experience as business owners and executives in major corporations in the retail, manufacturing and service sectors.
They can give specialized assistance in such areas as accounting, business administration, construction, educational services, engineering, finance, health care, human resources, information technology, labor relations, marketing, manufacturing, research and development, restaurants, retail trade, real estate, taxes and more.
SCORE matches entrepreneurs with counselors experienced in the same fields of endeavor who offer advice in person — at chamber offices or at the client’s site — as well as by phone and e-mail.
The Grand Rapids chapter also runs three workshops a month for start-ups and existing small businesses. The sessions cover such topics as researching an idea and preparing a business plan, how to secure financing, and business accounting, budgeting and controlling.
SCORE’s national office provides chapters with brochures, training materials, workshop videos and chapter-specific pages on the organization’s Web site.
The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce provides the group with office space and use of office equipment, and also promotes SCORE among other chamber activities in its print and online advertising. That exposure, along with a main street presence in the heart of the central business district, has been great for the chapter, said Dick Kitchen, secretary.
Bill Leete, vice chair, estimates that by October the chapter will have had about 750 total client contacts between counseling, follow-up sessions and training workshops this year.
Besides the national organization and the Grand Rapids Chamber, the U.S. Small Business Administration is one of SCORE’s major resource partners.
Locally, the group also draws upon the resources of the Small Business Development and Technology Center (SBDTC) at Grand Valley State University and Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW), among others.
Thome said SCORE focuses its energies on start-ups and small businesses.
“We don’t have all of the resources that the SBDTC or perhaps even GROW has at their fingertips. If someone is looking for patent information, or import and export information, we don’t have that expertise in our field of membership, so we do promote other resources.”
About 60 percent of inquiries come from entrepreneurs who are thinking about establishing a business or are just about ready to. According to Jayne Schwartz, treasurer, many of them come to SCORE because they need help finding the funds to get their businesses going.
“We sit down with them and help them develop their business plan and prepare them for meeting with the bankers and so forth,” she said.
Leete strongly encourages anyone thinking about starting a business to come to a SCORE workshop to learn about the basics first. From there, entrepreneurs can use SCORE counseling services for help in critiquing business plans and finding sources of funds, he said.
About 40 percent of calls for counseling come from existing small business owners.
“The typical comment is, ‘I’ve been in business for “x” number of years, my business has grown, I have more employees and more equipment, but my bottom line is not what it should be,’” noted Gene Diebold, a local SCORE counselor.
So what do SCORE counselors get from volunteering their time and expertise?
“When I had my own business I utilized the services of the chamber and the community, so for me it’s about giving back to the community,” Schwartz remarked. “It’s very self-rewarding to do this and help other people start their businesses.”
Thome, who also had her own business, said she takes satisfaction in helping entrepreneurs avoid the mistakes she and others made and helping them achieve a level of success.
“We can show them what to look out for,” she added. “We tend to provide the red flags for people in addition to encouraging them.”
In some cases, discouraging a person from starting a business is the better course of action because some people are just not cut out to run a business, Leete said.
“If someone really doesn’t have the wherewithal to start a business and decides not to after talking to SCORE, that in itself is a positive. I think it’s a service to help them come to that conclusion,” he said.
“On the other hand, if someone really has the wherewithal, we can really give them a lot of help.”
Diebold said he always comes away from a counseling session with a good feeling.
For him, getting involved with SCORE has been fulfilling on a very personal level; it helped fill a huge void created by his wife’s unexpected death.
“It was a terrific outlet for me. SCORE didn’t need me; I needed SCORE,” Diebold recalled.
Kitchen said in looking back on his own business career that he felt he owed something to the community.
“I enjoy getting involved with the young people and seeing their enthusiasm to attain whatever goal it is they’re trying to achieve. I feel really good about working with them because they want to get as much information as they can.”
Entrepreneurs can request as many or as few counseling sessions as they desire, even over a period of years. There’s no cap on how much free counseling they can get.
In some cases, the counselor and client develop an ongoing relationship. Diebold, for example, has mentored one young entrepreneur for the past two years and the relationship continues.
As Leete sees it, the relationships built with clients over a period of time are the most rewarding.
“You work with that person, you start to know their business, and you really feel like you’re contributing to their growth and success,” he remarked.
SCORE welcomes new members, whether retired or not. Being retired is not a criteria, it just so happens that the majority of current members are retired.
“You do find a kind of welcoming home here, especially for those folks who have retired from a very busy lifestyle with their own businesses and their own responsibilities within the corporations they worked for,” Thome said.
“I think it helps you transition into the next stage of your life, but you’re also able to feel good and feel needed about what help you can provide to other folks coming up behind you in the business world.”