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Meet the encore entrepreneurs

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Ruth Kinzey was 54 years old when she started her own business.

She’d worked in corporate communications for more than 25 years, traveling constantly, living remotely and answering to a boss who answered to a boss who answered to another boss.

In 2010, Kinzey traded in her senior-vice-president title to start her own communications consulting firm, The Kinzey Company, in Salisbury.

“While (my corporate position) was my dream job ... I was only getting home to see my husband once every five or six weeks,” says Kinzey, now 58. “I decided, at that point in my life, that wasn’t where I wanted to be.”

Kinzey is one of a growing number of seasoned professionals parlaying their decades of work experience into an encore career of entrepreneurship. Some were laid off in the recession. Others are tired of bureaucracy. And some just want a new adventure.

“There are some people saying, ‘You know what? I don’t want to sit and watch TV anymore. I don’t want to play golf. I want to do something I’ve always wanted to do,’ ” says Suzanne LaFollette-Black, associate state director of AARP-North Carolina.

Nationwide, 7.4 million people over age 50 own their own businesses, a figure that’s expected to double in the next decade, LaFollette-Black said.

And as long as unemployment in North Carolina stays high – the state ranks fifth-highest in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Labor – LaFollette-Black said she expects the number of local Baby Boomers trying their hand at entrepreneurship will continue to climb.

Silver to gold

The North Carolina AARP chapter and the Small Business Administration are jointly hosting a series of “Turning Your Silver into Gold” events around the state (Charlotte’s is July 17) to connect aspiring entrepreneurs in the 50+ age bracket connect with peers who have found success in small business.

Kinzey’s corporate background was critical to her business plan and execution. After deciding she wanted to start her own business, Kinzey bounced ideas off the professional network she’d developed over the years.

At first, she wanted to build a consulting firm around “corporate social responsibility,” helping companies build a reputation for environmentally friendly practice, philanthropy and transparency.

But the feedback she got from friends in her field and representatives from the SBA’s SCORE – a nonprofit partner of the SBA that helps entrepreneurs start and grow a small business – convinced her Charlotte and Salisbury “really aren’t the Mecca” for that kind of work.

So Kinsey broadened her focus to corporate and nonprofit communication strategy and reputation management. She now has a clients in the Charlotte area and internationally, as well as a national business column, a second book deal and university teaching gigs. And those professionals she turned to for advice? They’re resources she now often taps for her clients.

Retire? Not yet

Local entrepreneur John Norton, turned 70 last week. He says his long career as a biochemist brought him to his current marriage of business and hobby.

A long-time antiques enthusiast, Norton started a Concord-based business, Industrial Age Antiques, in 2010. He sells a cache of refurbished antiques and decorative items he mined from old mills and factories. For example: Industrial-chic dollies-turned-coffee tables, cast-iron basins for sinks and former work stools as dining room chairs.

Norton says his age and experience lend him credibility with businessmen who buy old mills and factories.

“One group that buys textile mills and sells used equipment, they call me as soon as they make a buy,” Norton says. “I get things out of the way that they’re not interested in.”

Last year, Norton dusted off his chemistry background and started a line of water-resistant laboratory glassware he “silver-flashes.” His four-step chemical reaction gives the lab glass a silver, mirror-like appearance. He sells them for $19 to $58 and says a number of prominent museums and department stores are interested in selling his glassware.

He also worked with SCORE when he decided to build up this part of the business.

His more than 50 years of buying and selling antiques also played in his favor. He says two Charlotte residents he met through antique markets have invested in his glassware.

“I’m doing what I love,” says Norton, who doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon. “I can’t imagine not doing it.”

Choosing the right business

LaFollette-Black of the AARP says many second-career entrepreneurs opt to open franchises, rather than start from scratch. They have autonomy but they’re not responsible for creating and establishing a brand.

“It’s attractive...a little bit easier,” she said. “You pay a fee, but you already have the experience of how it works.”

Others are finding success with home-based businesses, such as pet-sitting and concierge services.

But the risks involved in starting a business are true for seniors and non-seniors alike. Only about half of the more than 600,000 small firms started in the U.S. last year are expected to last beyond five years, according to the SBA.

And for seniors on the cusp of retirement or coming out of retirement, pouring savings into an iffy venture could be disastrous.

So the SBA and AARP encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to weigh their options, research the marketplace and take advantage of as many resources as possible.

Studying success stories wouldn’t hurt, either. “If everything is working out,” Kinzey says, “maybe I’ll crank out another book at 70.”

McMillan: 704-358-6045 Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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