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A hand up not a handout

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

When you’re starting your own business, there’s no sense in re-inventing the wheel. And who better to give advice on what to do and what not to do than someone who’s been through it all before?

“A long, long time ago, when I had a retail business, I was a SCORE client,” said Don O’Sullivan, one of the approximately 60 SCORE volunteers in Colorado. “I believe it’s an excellent resource for small businesses, because a lot of times they’re fumbling and they just need somebody to talk to.”

The not-for-profit SCORE association is celebrating its 40th year this year, and its mission continues to be providing counseling and training to entrepreneurs and small business owners through its network of volunteers.

“SCORE used to stand for “Service Corps of Retired Executives,” but it doesn’t now because so many of our volunteers are still in the workforce,” said Bob Eschino, chairman of the Denver chapter of SCORE.

Besides offering one-on-one counseling, free of charge, SCORE-Denver also holds workshops that cover topics like writing a business plan and starting your business. A nominal fee is charged for the workshops.

“In our chapter, that’s our only source of funding, and it’s the only thing that we charge for,” Eschino said.

The Denver chapter is one of about 385 nationwide, and there are about 10,000 members, or volunteers, around the country. Outside of Denver, there are only three offices around the state where one-on-one counseling is available, and Longmont is one of them.

According to Eschino, volunteers in Colorado donated more than 10,000 hours of their time last year and, during the fiscal year 2003 — which ended in October — they helped more than 1,600 clients during more than 2,000 sessions. More than 1,800 members attended the workshops.

“A year ago we were either the fourth or fifth largest in terms of members,” said Eschino. “I think we’re still one of the top 10 chapters in the country in terms of members.”

Nationally, more than 6 million entrepreneurs and small business owners have been helped by the program since it began in 1964. O’Sullivan was one of them, back when he owned a furniture and appliance store in Idaho years ago.

Now calling himself “semi-retired,” O’Sullivan’s past experience also includes teaching college and running his own consulting business.

The Career Development Center donates an office to SCORE, and O’Sullivan is in the office twice a month giving advice and listening to problems.

“There’s a tremendous variety of people who come in here, and some of them have such a misconception of what we do here,” O’Sullivan said. “(Sometimes,) they come in looking for money.”

But loans are not what the SCORE program is about. The counselors can direct you where to go to get loans, however. And the advice is free.

“Sometimes it’s just nice to be able to talk to somebody that’s not trying to sell you something,” O’Sullivan said. “The key to being successful in small business is knowing what resources are available and how to use them.”

Coloradans are more fortunate than some other states because of the large numbers of SCORE counselors available, O’Sullivan said. If someone wants specific advice on opening a bakery, the former owner of a furniture and appliance store might not be the best person to talk specifics with.

“The recommendation I often make is, it’s best to talk to different counselors,” said O’Sullivan. “They all have different perspectives ... They just bring different stuff to the game.

“Often, you can find somebody that’s close to that particular business.”

SCORE is a “resource partner” with the Small Business Administration and the Small Business Development Center. But, Eschino points out, SCORE receives no funding from either of those agencies. And like any volunteer organization, SCORE is always happy to accommodate those looking to give something back.

“We look for people with business backgrounds,” Eschino said. “They’ve been executives in a business or they’ve owned their own business. About 30 percent of our counselors in Denver are still fully employed.

“We are constantly in search of more volunteers, and especially volunteers in the Longmont area. We could provide more services in Longmont if we had more volunteers.”

Now in his second year heading up the Denver chapter, Eschino said that counseling helps him keep his hand in the business world without having to worry about this quarter’s profit-and-loss statement.

“What brought me to SCORE was, I sold out of my share of a business, and I actually thought I was prepared to retire,” Eschino said. “I went to workshops, I went to seminars, on how to retire. But I found out that I missed the challenge of business.”

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.