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SCORE to the rescue SBA's volunteer business advisers seeing spike in requests from women entrepreneurs

Jetaun Jones, owner of a new Elmwood Avenue shop with plaid Italian coats hanging from silvery bars she designed herself, knew long ago that she wanted to use her fashionista sensibilities to make a living.

The details came to the tall, high-cheekboned woman gradually, after she modeled for department stores in high school. She aimed for business, passed up a New York City modeling contract and got a graduate degree. Then 1 1/2 years ago, she began work on a detailed plan to get a bank loan to open a shop she now calls BeYouTiful.

Before Jones took the next step, she said she was saved from a pricey mistake by a conversation with a volunteer business adviser.

He was one in a corps of retired local executives whose list of entrepreneur clients rises when the economy dips, as it has been threatening to. And volunteers say more and more, the people who are most prepared and ready for help are women.

"I think there's more women wanting to go back into the work force," said Scott Smith, Jones' counselor. "They want to enjoy that independence."

At first, Jones was so eager to start, she was tempted to put money down to buy someone else's business with racks and wall colors already picked out. Then Scott Smith, a retired management consultant who counsels about 100 clients a year, asked her to think carefully and list the advantages.

Jones, who will say only that her age is some number less than 30, realized buying into another's idea would keep her from planning details that mattered: from the look of the store to the most cost-effective cash register.

"It wasn't me. It wasn't my vision," said Jones. "It showed me you really need to work this thing out from beginning to end."

Jones' two-month-old store at 513 Elmwood Ave. now has walls in purple, yellow and turquoise that she chose along with racks a Rochester metalsmith made. It all reflected an idea she had to make the store by the West Utica Street intersection look like a swish Manhattan boutique.

Smith is a blazer-wearing former management consultant who defers to Jones' fashion sense, but thinks she wound up on a better, trendier block by setting up her own store. "I'm glad she went this way," said Smith, the local chairman of SCORE, founded as the Service Corps of Retired Executives. "We just hope her tastes run in line with her customers'."

At 48, he is one of the two youngest members of the local chapter of the nonprofit organization that started in 1964 to assist the advocacy efforts of the Small Business Association. Now SCORE gets $5 million in federal funding and has 10,500 retired executive volunteers in 389 chapters nationwide. About 60 have signed up with Buffalo-Niagara's. They put in 10 or 15 hours a month doing one-on-one counseling and leading $25 workshops about business plans, marketing and financial management.

They consult by e-mail, phone and in suburban libraries, coffee shops and at the headquarters, an office inside the SBA's suite on the fifth floor of the new building for federal tenants at 130 S. Elmwood Ave.

>Stressing the basics

Most SCORE counselors are men. Most are in their 60s and 70s. Even though technology and society has changed in the decades since some started their careers, the fundamentals of making the numbers work are the same. "It doesn't matter what type of business you have -- 20 years go or today -- those functions are still required one way or another," said Smith.

In the past five years that he has been a member, more and more women with detailed business plans have come in. "In general, they're a little more organized, even if the plan isn't done," he said. While the ratio of women to men with developed plans seemed to be 50-50 when Smith started, his split of clients is now closer to 60-40.

The official local SCORE office numbers, which show the bigger number of all inquiries and appointments, illustrate some of this shift. In 2001, 52 percent were by women. In 2002 and 2003, it was 59 percent.

Women dropped off to 48 percent in 2004 when Canisius College opened the Women's Business Center with funding help from the SBA. Last year, the percentage began to creep up again with women accounting 52 percent.

And lately, the traditionally male SCORE group, with four women volunteers, has been working to recruit more women and minority counselors. "We're open to many more," Smith said.

The counselors, some retired, some still working, now include a furniture company president, a funeral home director, a doctor, a former department store chain owner and contractors and bankers.

The client ideas range from some so original, the entrepreneurs have been advised to seek patent help from lawyers who offer a free consultation. Others want to start businesses grooming dogs, repairing shoes, as gas station groceries and as a printer cartridge ink refiller. One doctor wanted to open a homeopathic practice. Another opened a bus service driving families to visit relatives in prison.

When the economy dips, calls rise as more people think being an entrepreneur is a solution to a layoff. In keeping with this, the numbers of people coming in to talk about their business ideas dropped in the last few years, as the economy strengthened.

Nationally the numbers of SCORE consultations dipped by 15 percent last year. Locally, the drop was a smaller 13.5 percent, Smith said. Now as automaker downsizing looms, the group expects queries to spike. "It goes in cycles," Smith said.

>Giving bad news

SCORE advisers say that half the time they help people realize that their plan isn't well thought out enough and that they shouldn't open yet. One couple, who had spent four years with a floundering business, came to Tom Hughes for a second opinion. Being told the set-up was too flawed to work, was a relief.

Out of the 30 clients he counseled last year, six started businesses. Hughes, who with his wife started a clothing business selling to nursing home residents with his wife, expects half will eventually decide to stop.

"Save your money to do something else," he advised one couple after reviewing the numbers and the business' poor side street location. "The wife was thrilled."

After three years in the fish-smoking business, Doug Babcock thinks the SCORE workshops and discussions helped him know the importance of managing small details such as credit card processing fees. "I think it's a first step for anyone thinking of starting a business," he said of SCORE.

He started small, as Smith remembers recommending, and now wants to expand, set up a Web site, sell to wholesalers and move to a more visible location with better parking. He admits business is a struggle. He hasn't had money to market himself as SCORE advised. He's paying his bills, but sometimes he's too busy to get them in on time.

Even so, he has no plans to stop. It was his perception of the economy that led him to leave seasonal construction work to try to create his own, more stable job by smoking wild salmon and trout with hickory at his Village Smokehouse on Union Street in Hamburg.

"I'm just not going to work for someone else anymore," he said.

>Voice of experience

SCORE counselor Fred Batson, 77, former president of Kittinger Furniture, got his start as an entrepreneur after the family company was sold to another who managed in a way he disagreed with.

Soon after he left Kittinger, he borrowed money and bought a furniture company in Canada. It is that experience that included negotiating with a bank to lift the personal guarantee on his house, that helps him counsel entrepreneurs to be wary of pitfalls.

For a husband and wife who wanted to pass their business on to a son and daughter who disagreed about how to run things, Batson suggested they split the company in two to give each child control. For a trucker who wanted to buy his own $350,000 rig, Batson suggested analyzing potential clients and revenues to see if it would be worth the loan. "If you don't have a business plan, you might as well go home," he said.

On a recent morning Batson waited for a client appointment with fellow volunteer Bill Dengler. They'd come downtown in jackets and ties on a blustery cold day. Minutes before the meeting, the client called to cancel.

"Somebody like that is going to be a failure in business," said Batson. He and Dengler seemed unfazed that they'd wasted a trip to the office. Working with people who do show up is worth the trouble.

"I would have liked some help along the way," said Dengler, 79, who started his funeral home when he was 23 after serving in World War II. "I think I could have done a better job." The funeral home he started with a staff of three did thrive. The business eventually sold to a national company and his sons now manage homes with a staff of 20.

Financial advice early on might have changed everything. "I probably wouldn't have done it," Dengler said with a nod.

e-mail: mkearns@buffnews.com

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