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Golden start ups


Not yet ready to rest, retirees take on new challenges and new risks in entrepreneurship

By Sean Fitzgerald, New North B2B publisher

When Joe Vosters’ 88-year-old mother was on the brink of no longer being able to take care of her husband, the furthest thing from Vosters’ mind was starting a business.

At 92 and with limited mobility, Vosters’ father couldn’t maneuver around his bed enough to roll over on his own, and getting in and out of bed by himself was a struggle. Traditional bed railings and suspended trapezes were available from medical device stores for him to grab onto, but they’re flimsy, wobbly and more often than not, couldn’t provide the help his father needed.

Vosters’ background as a mechanical design engineer and 30 years experience in the paper industry encouraged him to come up with a solution of his own. Vosters knew he could develop and design a structure over the bed sturdy enough to withhold more than 400 pounds and accommodate a wide range of motions his father would need to roll over on his own, move more freely around his bed, and even stand up from the bed, stabilize himself and safely maneuver from there.

After Vosters was laid off from a job running the operations of a small plastics machinery manufacturer in his mid-50s, Vosters’ brother-in-law suffered a debilitating stroke which limited his movement in bed as well. Since he wasn’t working at the time, Vosters helped out a few days a week making his brother-in-law more comfortable. Noting the same mobility problems as were evident with his father, Vosters began scratching ideas together for a heavy duty design to provide greater freedom and independence in the bed area.

“I saw the same challenges going on between the two of them,” Vosters said. “In fact, this was even more important for the caregiver.”

Then it struck him – the need for his product idea was more widespread than he thought, and would only increase further as more and more Americans with limited mobility strive to remain in their homes rather than go into an assisted care facility. If he could manufacture and sell these devices – which he dubbed Friendly Beds – he could create quite a thriving business. So he ceased his job search and started his own company, Appleton-based Bill-Ray Home Mobility, which he launched in early 2010.

“The potential market out there for this product is just getting ready to go nuts. All the pieces I’ve ever had in my background are coming together to make something come from nothing,” Vosters said.

A growing trend

Vosters’ story of starting a business toward the end of his career isn’t unique. In fact, leading entrepreneurship think tank Kauffman Foundation indicated rates of entrepreneurship are 50 percent higher for those individuals between 55 and 64 than people between 20 and 34. At the same time, rates of entrepreneurship among that later age demographic have been trending upwards since 2007, while rates for the younger demographic group have remained flat.

That trend might seem somewhat counterintuitive because of the financial risk often associated with an entrepreneurial start up. Younger entrepreneurs, at the very least, can often manage if they lose everything in a worst-case situation should their business goes bottoms up. And often younger entrepreneurs haven’t accumulated a lifetime of wealth and assets, the impact of which is it isn’t all that painful to lose everything when one doesn’t have very much to lose.

Retirees – on the other hand – have often paid off their home mortgages, put their children through college, and accumulated a sizeable nest egg. They own boats, vacation properties, hobby collections, robust investment portfolios, and a whole range of other assets that a failed entrepreneurial endeavor could compromise. And at that stage in life, there’s much less opportunity to lose it all, start from scratch, and rebuild substantial wealth.

Yet, an increasing number of retirees are becoming first-time, start up entrepreneurs rather than hitting the golf links late every morning after watching The Price Is Right and downing a few cups of coffee. The Baby Boomer generation coming into retirement age this decade perhaps accents this trend more than at any other time in the past. And why not? They’re not necessarily looking to rest and relax in their late 50s and early 60s. They’re still extremely active, both cognitively and physically. They’ve collected a lifetime of skills, knowledge, and a network of resources in their industry and in their community. And they may just have accumulated enough wealth working for others during their career to pull off starting their own independent business.

Green Bay’s Mary Pulak had always had a passion for health and wellness during her 33-year career as a health and physical education teacher in the Green Bay Area School District. After leaving the classroom in 2006 to pursue a job as a wellness consultant with a large group health insurance carrier, Pulak was let go after two years when the company changed its strategy relative to her role.

During the last year in her consulting role, Pulak attended a health and wellness conference where she was exposed to hooping, a blast-from-the-past but contemporary way to exercise that seemed to have an appeal with the Boomer generation. Pulak was literally hooked, enough so that in 2008 she began a company to make the custom weighted hula hoops called Hooked on Hooping. Not knowing much about business, she sought out SCORE counseling and eventually enrolled in an entrepreneurship program through Urban Hope in Green Bay where she developed her business plan.

“I thought this might possibly turn into a business, and I didn’t know anything about running a business,” Pulak said.

Now 60, she’s evolved the business beyond just making and selling her custom hula hoops. She teaches classes for adults, has conducted numerous school assemblies for large groups of students, and even produced a DVD to allow fellow hooping enthusiasts to receive her personal instruction from the comfort of their homes.

“The cool thing is I’m doing everything I love to do,” Pulak said. “I love teaching. I love kids, and I love hanging around with women my age. I love spreading the message of health and wellness to others.”

Pulak admits she’s reticent to invest her own savings too heavily in the business. Opportunities have presented themselves along the way for her to purchase equipment to mass produce her custom hula hoops – or even to contract the production out to other vendors – but she’s leery of the risks that come from taking her company to that level.

“Being in my position at my age, I was not about to invest a lot of money. I was thinking about retirement,” Pulak said. “For me, I didn’t do this because of the money.”

Fulfilling purpose 

After more than 25 years in the health care industry pairing up doctors with patients, doctors with health management organizations, and ultimately bringing together health insurance providers with patients, Bill Macier left a key executive position with one of the region’s leading health insurers to make his mark on the community in a different way – by becoming his own boss and contributing to the ambience of the Green Bay community he’s called home for the past 15 years.

With a connoisseur’s affection for coffee and tea, Macier looked to start up his own coffee shop in 2007. After months of research and visits to coffee shops across the region, Macier stepped into a chance opportunity to buy a business that already had a bit of history behind it. The Attic on the outskirts of Green Bay’s downtown was more of a book store at the time that also sold coffee, but Macier saw potential to carry on its tradition while putting his own mark on the business.

Today, The Attic Books & Coffee still has books, but that’s become much less the focus of his comfortable pad that supports regular live musical entertainment, poetry readings, and occasional art exhibits from children’s programs across the region. Macier takes pride in recognizing his corner coffee shop has created a judgment-free zone that’s become a melting pot for Green Bay to get together with friends, family or colleagues for some hearty conversation. And a hearty cup of joe.

“Part of my mission here is to give people a place to revive, to refresh, and to renew their spirit,” Macier said.

The Attic grew its annual revenues by 20 percent during the first year Macier owned it, and he’s continued to gradually re-invent the coffee shop one overstuffed comfy chair at a time. He recently implemented a tea bar and is in the process of developing a tea house “within a coffee house” concept at The Attic.

With areas of study in philosophy and religion while in college, Macier started his career working for a nonprofit agency enabling cognitively disabled individuals to lead more fulfilling lives. As such, the characteristics of social responsibility embedded in his DNA have found an additional outlet now through his business.

Macier sits on the board for the Olde Main Street District in downtown Green Bay. His coffee house often hosts displays for local human service and social service agencies to share the scope of their work in the community. And Macier has been known to derive a number of clever promotions aimed at raising funds and awareness for local charities.

Collectively, these and other efforts have infused a personality into The Attic which gives its customers a sense of belonging and a sense of ownership. Macier strives for that. It would seem that everything he does with his entrepreneurial endeavor is an attempt to become even more a part of the community and to make a difference.

“My whole work life has been about creating a space for people to get things done,” he said. “As Baby Boomers, it’s kind of in our nature to just keep going.”

Hedging entrepreneurial bets

Regardless of a entrepreneur’s financial motives for creating a start up, “business” by it’s very definition has to maintain some focus on money and financial risk, even as a nonprofit.

In Pulak’s case, she said she didn’t get into business “because of the money.” She has a pension from her teaching career that comfortably supports her household income, and seems content keeping Hooked on Hooping going at its current pace with out any abrupt shifts to the next phase of growth.

In Vosters’ case with Bill-Ray Home Mobility, he’s sought outside investors and arranged strategic partnerships with vendors to help him get his business off the ground. His effort is costly – his first prototype alone cost him $6,000, which he invested himself – and he’s been enduring the long and grueling process to patent his product. His patent is currently pending.

A finalist in the 2010 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Competition, Vosters’ business is also officially qualified with the state for Act 255 angel funding, and he’s hoping to eventually receive some venture capital support.

“(Going into business is) a risk no matter how you cut it,” Vosters said. “There’s so many steps to get a business off the ground.”

He continues to tweak his product, and earlier this year opened a showroom in Appleton to help tangibly demonstrate it to those willing to stop in. But marketing remains a challenge, particularly as Vosters is preparing to expand into the Milwaukee and Madison markets later this month, then into Arizona and Florida by this coming fall. All that marketing costs money.

Entrepreneurs at the latter stages of their career do need to evaluate their entire portfolio of wealth and identify a finite amount they’re willing to lose without having to compromise on the lifestyle they expected for themselves in retirement, said Roy Fine, a corporate law attorney with the Neenah law firm DiRenzo & Bomier LLC.

“There’s something of a gambler’s mentality (with start-up entrepreneurs at this stage in their lives), but it’s more of a professional gambler’s mentality,” Fine said. “The universal element seems to be to protect what they’ve accumulated.”

Fine offers four simple tips for protecting that accumulation of wealth and assets. First, and universal to any entrepreneur, set up a limited liability company or other legal business incorporation. Second, Fine said limit the number of guarantees to creditors and lenders – and a closely related third tip – limit the dollar amount on those guarantees. Lastly, he warned not to pledge personal retirement assets as collateral for any loans or lines of credit.

For any would-be entrepreneur that’s been fortunate enough to establish a trust while earning income during their career, it’s all right to consider those funds for a start up.

“If you have a trust, I would suggest using it to help fund and finance the new enterprise,” Fine said.

Fighting for social justice

After more than 50 years as a Catholic priest, Fr. Joe Mattern wasn’t about to sit still when he “retired” from St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Omro two years ago at the age of 75.

A self-described bleeding heart liberal with a penchant for social justice, Fr. Mattern spent much of his career helping the primarily Mexican immigrant farm working population in rural western Winnebago and eastern Waushara counties. When he retired, Mattern knew his work couldn’t retire with him. This growing community had come to rely upon him –primarily because many are devoutly Catholic – and Fr. Mattern is fluent in Spanish and has conducted Spanish-speaking mass for the past decade. He’s also come to acutely understand the challenges this population faces in the schools, in the justice system, an elsewhere in the community.

“There is an inherent racism here – I firmly believe that – and that’s at the root of every problem they face,” Mattern said. “They are the poorest of the poor. They’re living in fear.”

With funding assistance from a trust set up by his sister who sold a technology firm she helped build from the ground up, Fr. Mattern established Casa Esther, a nonprofit Catholic worker house in Omro. Padre Joe, as he’s affectionately called, enrolled in the eSeed Program through the Venture Center at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton where honed his budgeting skills, drafted a formal business plan for Casa Esther, and formed a board of directors for the 501(c) 3 corporation.

Casa Esther currently operates an 11-acre organic vegetable garden and sells its produce at farmer’s markets in Oshkosh and Omro. Additional produce is provided to a handful of food pantries in the area. The entity gives music lessons to children, a personal passion for the still-performing jazz musician in Fr. Mattern, and even equips children with instruments to play. Casa Esther provides interpreting services, English Language Learning classes, provides prison ministry for those who are incarcerated, and actively lobbies for comprehensive immigration reform. His mission is growing as the population of Hispanics in northeast Wisconsin has grown from just over 5,000 in 1990 to more than 33,000 as of the 2010 U.S. Census.

Now 77, Fr. Mattern still conducts three to four masses every weekend. He works out at the gym three times per week, is still an avid golfer, and loves to perform live jazz in front of an engaged audience. But it’s his entrepreneurial efforts toward social justice that fuels his fire to keep battling racism, ignorance and misunderstanding everyday.

“I try to stay healthy, and this stuff all keeps me healthy.”