With age comes wisdom, and at 50 years old, SCORE has the experience to prove it.
The nonprofit organization founded in 1964 has helped some 10 million small business owners find their way through the daunting economic wilderness.
Launching one’s own company is no easy venture. As the wise man once said, “If it were easy, everybody would be doing it.”
That’s where SCORE comes in. The national organization has a network of 11,000 volunteer mentors in 340 chapters who offer free, one-on-one counseling for starting — or improving — small businesses.
In 2012 alone, SCORE clients started 37,054 new businesses and created 82,207 jobs in the American economy.
The successes, though, fly a bit under the radar.
“We are a great secret,” says Joel Buesteton, the Southwestern Illinois Chapter chairman for the past two years.
Buesteton, like many of his colleagues in SCORE, has a solid management background. He was in customer care operations and business planning and strategy for years with AT&T. Prior to that he’d worked at Western Union and General Electric Credit Corp. He retired eight years ago when SBC merged with AT&T.
It was a colleague at AT&T, another chapter chair, who recruited him as a mentor for SCORE. Buesteton said he views it as a way to give back to the region, keep his mind active and perhaps have a say in the well-being of the business community. Not all the members are retired, but all bring various levels of expertise to the table.
“You don’t know all the answers — don’t pretend to know all the answers,” he admits. But there is a passion to help.
In this, its 50th year, the organization once known as the Service Corps of Retired Executives is spreading the word about its services.
“We have 34 active members, and that’s split about evenly between our chapter, which is located at Lewis and Clark (Community College’s campus) in Godfrey and the branch office in Belleville. There are around a dozen chapters in Illinois,” he said.
The chapter is always seeking new volunteers to mentor others. Among current members is one gentleman who is a retired LCCC faculty member — once an engineer from McDonnell-Douglas. Another is a retired engineer and former chief technology officer for Laclede Steel Co.. Another is a retired construction company exec. Another a retired banker.
“Many of us have come from major corporations,” Buesteton said.
Volunteers come in as a provisional member and go through a mentor-certification process and on-line webinars. They then spend time with an already certified mentor doing co-counseling activities with clients.
“We typically want to get two or three opportunities, to see how interviews take place,” Buesteton said.
Locally, SCORE formed a student chapter at LCCC last fall. Dr. Doug Schneiderheinze, the coordinator of the business department, is the adviser.
“They have an almost equal number of members in the student chapter as we have in the (Southwest) chapter,” Buesteton said. “We’re going to be bringing them in through our mentor-certification program, so they can learn what it is we do.”
SCORE’s national and local operations have websites and phone numbers that allow people to get in touch to request mentoring. Those requests go to a chapter’s administrator, who will call the potential client for an interview.
“We’re charged to make contact with the client within 48 hours,” Buesteton said. “Our chapter administrator will look at the request, the type of business it is, and look at our pool of counselors to determine who has the (appropriate) background.”
The people in need of assistance come from all walks. Some are just starting out. Others are further along and just need a boost.
The organization offers two fee-based workshops, “simple steps” to either starting or growing a business. And it gives special consideration to military, active and retired, free of charge.
“There are a lot of people already in business. They are floundering, and nine times out of 10 they don’t have a business plan or a current business plan,” Buesteton says. And I think that’s where our primary expertise comes in. We can provide templates and tools and guidance to the client in creating their business plan.”
The SCORE business plan template will test an entrepreneur’s mettle, but serious participants are glad to go through the process, Buesteton said.
“It’s a generic business plan, and on the surface it may be intimidating, because it’s like 30 pages. But each section is very self-guided. It has a lot of questions it asks the reader to think about. When they finish, their own business plan might only by 10 or 12 pages in length,” he said.
A plan only needs to incorporate what the planner himself wants to include from the SCORE template.
Buesteton said: “I tell people, ‘You don’t have to write ‘War and Peace’.”
Having a plan is a good start, but not every entrepreneur can be a businessman, he agrees.
“People have the creativity, the energy, but not the work ethic to knuckle down and slog through the tedious (stuff). They also fail when they don’t lift their head up and look around. Maybe they are too focused. They’ve underestimated the competition in their area. They’ve not defined what their niche is — they’re trying to be all things to all people or deliver a product that is too generic,” he said.
Financing is, of course, a big concern. People sometimes try to start on too much of a shoestring. They lack the capital to sustain them for a period of time.
“Cash flow is huge,” Buesteton said.
“We point out the potholes and roadblocks that may be glossed over by the client. If we can prevent them from making a big mistake — even if it’s to convince them not to go into business — we’ve been as successful as if we helped someone realize their dream and go into business,” he said.
People from all walks have approached SCORE. Locally, the chapter has dealt recently with a health-care professional, an attorney, a psychotherapist, a chiropractor, and three different home-baked goods operators (one each in Greenville, Godfrey and Bethalto).
“It’s interesting how things catch on,” Buesteton said. “We have some people looking to start restaurants, bakeries, an ice cream shop, a software storage package and computer system for online investment management. We have one in Belleville who develops hand puppets that are used in fun houses and carnivals.”
Another client was actually looking to get out of business, wanting help to sell an assisted living center.
SCORE can provide a lot of basic information, but often it defers to outside experts.
“We counsel everyone: Get an attorney, get an accountant, get an insurance agent: Those are the three professions right out of the gate that they need to work with,” Buesteton said.
Most professional advisers will price themselves reasonably to assist startups, knowing that if those clients become successes, they may well become lifetime customers, he said.
SCORE does make professional referrals. It has, for instance, arrangements with a number of area attorneys.
“They’ll meet with our clients pro bono for half an hour, answer basic questions and explain fee structures and what they can do for them,” he said.
The organization that pushes business planning goes through planning of its own, regularly reviewing what chapters are doing for purposes of continuing charters.
“We measure ourselves on number of clients, workshops we can deliver, number of attendees we can attract. We’ll try to better ourselves year over year,” Buesteton said.
Last year, some 122 clients were served by the Southwestern Illinois Chapter. This year, it’s served 95, with about two months left to go in the fiscal year.
To build its reach the chapter partners with business support agencies, including the Illinois Metro East Small Business Development Center at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the local chambers and growth associations.
Much of SCORE’s appeal is driven by harder times, Buesteton acknowledges.
“It seems to be, when the economy is doing better our caseloads are down a little bit. When the economy seems to have dipped, our caseloads increase a little bit,” he said. He theorizes some people are nervous about their careers and want to create something as a fallback.
The local chapter covers a lot of ground, from Calhoun County to the north, south to Madison and St. Clair counties, and east, all the way to Wabash County on the Indiana line. It takes in a lot of the territory represented by the Interstate 70/64 corridor.
“We have 15 counties, and Madison and St. Clair are 95 percent of what we do. We’re starting to branch out to some of the underserved areas,” he said.
The area to the south was formerly served by a chapter in Carbondale that is currently not active. That leaves a chapter based in Paducah, Ky., to handle much of deep southern Illinois.
The organization hearkens back to 1952 when a handful of DuPont retirees were looking for a way to give back to the community. It was more formally organized a dozen years later. Examples of the many success stories in the years since can be found on line.