Marking 3rd decade of helping little guy

September 29, 1994|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Sun Staff Writer

Bill Phillips and David Fulton were typical of lots of retirees: They were looking for something useful to do after retiring in 1988. Betsy Grater and Mimi Bennett needed help with their fledgling business in the mid-1980s.

Any good capitalist polemicist knows that two groups of people like this will find each other. Today is the 30th anniversary celebration of a group that makes that happen: the Service Corps of Retired Executives, a nonprofit program that matches retired business people with the younger entrepreneurs who need exactly what the volunteers have to offer -- and at pretty much the price volunteers charge.

"You have a feeling that you do help people," said Mr. Phillips, 71, a former construction equipment dealer from Timonium. "They're looking for knowledge."

The national SCORE program began life as a fully independent nonprofit group but now accepts sponsorship from the U.S. Small Business Administration. The group has 12,000 volunteers nationwide and about 150 to 175 working out of five offices in Maryland.

In Baltimore, that means the group gets free office space and phones from the local SBA but finds its own volunteer staff and raises the rest of its own money, SBA district manager Charles Gaston said.

But the group's work is done in much less glamorous locales than yesterday's nosh at the Suburban Club in Upper Park Heights. Most businesses that seek SCORE's help find it through the SBA, when they look for government-backed financing. Most are tiny, run by people with little prior business background, and sorely need the help.

"The only reason for our existence is to help small business," Mr. Phillips said. "Most of the people we get are really small -- Ma and Pa, and sometimes only Pa."

Which was pretty much the case when Victor and Mimi Bennett wanted some help in the late 1980s with the honey business they were running out of their Ashburton home.

Victor Bennett went to the SBA for financing for Really Raw Honey, which sells natural, unprocessed honey to health food stores. He was referred to one of the 40 or so annual classes the local SCORE runs for fledgling entrepreneurs and hooked up with volunteer David Fulton, who has been working with the family business ever since.

"He can say, 'This is how it turned out' " in his own career as owner of a garden products company Mr. Fulton sold in 1988, Mrs. Bennett said. "He has that kind of wisdom, and it's unbeatable."

Mr. Fulton and Mrs. Bennett agree that a SCORE volunteer isn't there to run the business for a client. Mr. Fulton said he stays in touch about once a month and has helped the Bennetts work on solving chronic supply problems for the particular kind of honey they need and helped persuade them to move the business out of their home to Canton.

"I don't know that we would have floundered around without him," Mrs. Bennett said. "But he was the catalyst. We didn't have to go anywhere else."

"I just sit there and beat on them," Mr. Fulton joked. "It's fun watching people emerge from their basement to where they are known all over the eastern part of the country."

Betsy Grater's story is similar. She hooked up with retired hotel executive Milton J. Firey III in the mid-1980s after buying a tiny bed- and-breakfast reservation service, which she runs out of her home (itself a B&B) in Bolton Hill. Mr. Firey helped the new business owner decide where to advertise and how to market the business, which now represents more than 100 inns in seven states.

"I hadn't been in the hotel industry at all," Ms. Grater said. "Just knowing those resources are out there is good. You don't have time to go out and find out all that out yourself."

Volunteers like Mr. Fulton and Bernice Seiden, president of Baltimore's SCORE chapter, point out an easy-to-overlook service they perform for lots of would-be business owners. They talk them out of bad ideas and make sure their clients know starting a business means a year or more of making little money while it gets off the ground.

"One of the things we do well is save people a lot of heartache and a lot of money," said Paul Friedberg, a SCORE volunteer for 21 years. "We give people the information they really have to know."

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