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SCORE-ing big for small businesses

 
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After he retired from his job as a financial specialist, Fair Lawn resident Howard Sirota, a long-time member of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, tried playing tennis and bridge.

“It was fun,” he said, “but I wanted to give something back to the community.”

For the past 15 years, he has been doing exactly that, serving as a mentor for the Bergen County chapter of SCORE, based in Hackensack.

Formerly known as the Service Corps of Retired Executives, SCORE is a nonprofit association that helps small businesses get off the ground, grow, and achieve their goals, says Lewis Marchiona, chairman of SCOREBergen.

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Harvey Starr shares his 35 years of experience. SCORE

The group, which helps businesses through education and mentorship, is supported by the Small Business Administration. With some 13,000 volunteers in chapters throughout the country, the 50-year-old organization has seen the demand for its services rise as the economy has worsened.

“The demand has increased with the bad economy,” Marchiona said. “It started to spike about three years ago.”

Sirota estimates that he has counseled about 200 people. He said he derives great satisfaction from his volunteer work, which sometimes consumes as much as five hours a week.

“When I help some people go into business, I feel very good about it,” he said. But he’s also gratified when he can prevent people from making a mistake and spending their life savings on a business they know nothing about.

“The most important thing is to listen,” he said. “It takes trainees a few months to learn how to do that. I tell them to listen to other [mentors] and listen to the client.”

The mentor said he is learning constantly from his fellow counselors.

“You always learn from other people,” he said. “Everyone brings something else to the table. There’s so much knowledge over there. We can help a business if there’s enough time.”

Sometimes there isn’t, he said, pointing to one client who approached them for help after he already had used up his savings.

Sirota pointed out that with the large number of Jews in Bergen County, it’s not surprising that many of SCORE’s clients are Jewish.

“You get a lot of Jews with problems,” he said. “They may be out of a job. While we can’t find one for them, I may suggest that they get a part-time job in an area they’re interested in.”

Most of the clients he sees are interested in starting a business.

“You have to question them to see if they’re capable of going into business or if they’ll just lose their money,” he said. “It takes one or two sessions to find out. You tell them everything they’ll have to know — marketing, finance, purchasing, etc. — and tell them nicely if they won’t be successful.”

Sirota said people also come because they need a job or don’t like their current jobs or want to make a change in their lives.

“They may have a little bit of money saved up. They may not understand that when they start a business, it’s a total commitment. An idea is not enough,” he said. “They have to know how to execute it, solve problems, and think on their feet.”

“It’s rough for some people,” he said. “Many have been out of a job for a long time and the only thing left is to start a business when they’re middle-aged.”

While he doesn’t want to dampen their enthusiasm, he is convinced that for many, it’s the wrong thing to do.

“If I can help them save money by not going into business, it’s a small victory,” he said.

Harvey Starr, also of Fair Lawn, who belongs to Barnert Temple, has been a SCORE counselor for 15 years as well.

“When I retired, I took a year to find out what things I wanted to do,” he said. “I tried various things. This is one of the things that worked.”

Like Sirota, he was prompted to join the group because “I had 35 years of experience and want to share it so people don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Every once in a while, you reach a client who brings you satisfaction, so you come back and do more.”

Starr — whose pre-retirement job was financing machinery for all kinds of businesses — said the usual kind of client is someone who is starting a business or has just gotten one off the ground.

“Basically, I let them talk,” he said. “Somewhere in their talk, I’ll pick up inklings of the solution. Often, they know what the problem is [but] they don’t know that they do.”

Occasionally, he said, he gets a “pleasant surprise, where you can really make a difference in their lives.”

One client was approached by a large company to sell his business but turned down the offer. The would-be purchaser then set up a competing business across the street, selling the same products at a lower cost. By the time the client came to SCORE, he was losing a great deal of money.

Starr said he understood the client’s anguish, having lived through a similar situation.

“It took six weeks to get him to understand what he was enduring and come to the obvious conclusion, which was there from the start,” said the counselor. “One day he said he really didn’t have a choice.”

Six months later, the client called Starr to thank him for helping him remake his life.

The mentor, who estimates that he spends about three hours a week counseling clients, said the faltering economy has produced some “tearjerkers,” with people of middle age being let go after 25 years with the same company.

“It’s sad to watch these people dipping into savings, getting into something they don’t know much about. They take, or don’t take, my advice. They may listen to the advice of relatives [instead], and it doesn’t work.”

People can come back as often as they want and counseling is free. In addition, Starr said, clients who are not satisfied with their counselor can request another.

“People at SCORE have nothing to prove,” Starr said. “If we can’t help, we reach out to another mentor in another discipline.”

He pointed out that his fellow volunteers are successful people in their own right.

“They bring the expertise; we counsel them in how to use it.”

Describing SCORE as “a resource partner of the Small Business Administration,” Marchiona noted that the Hackensack office was founded 40 years ago and now has about 41 volunteer mentors.

“They run the full gamut,” he said, “retired, semi-retired, and those who are active in business but still donate time.”

Mentors combine about 500 different specialties, from financial banking experience to manufacturing, and the group sees about 1,100 clients a year. In addition to counseling, it offers low-cost workshops on topics ranging from social media to sales management. [For a full listing of workshops, go to SCOREBergen.org.]

“A special thing we offer is a program for people thinking about starting a business,” he said. Called Simple Steps, the five-week program meets every Monday night and “is heavily staffed with mentors who sit close by the participants and help them through the program.”

Workshops are offered free of charge to veterans and members of their families.

Marchione said the mentors, all Bergen County residents, take on the challenge because “with all this talent and experience, it’s a mortal sin not to pass it on to people. There’s a real rush of satisfaction when you’re talking to someone and you can see the light coming on.”

For more information about SCORE, go to SCORE.org.

 
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