In Business to Help

Author: Calvin J. Cohen

Occasionally during a long business career I would wonder whether what I was doing was at all beneficial to mankind. It might have been a stretch, but I could rationalize that by indirectly helping my company produce affordable apparel I was supplying one of people’s basic needs. I didn’t ponder the question very often because most of my time was divided between work and family. But when I retired after 40-plus years, I was able to revisit the question and maybe deal with it in a more honest and direct manner.

I suppose most people’s dream of retirement is to be able to do all the things you couldn’t when you had to spend the bulk of your time earning a living. In my case, traveling, gardening and playing golf were great, but they left a lot of hours to be filled. I remember spending the first winter of my retirement in Florida enjoying the weather but not much else.

The next winter I was doing tax returns for senior citizens and others of moderate means as a volunteer with the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). It wasn’t the Peace Corps or Habitat for Humanity, but I am not too good at building houses, and my wife would probably object to my going off to a Third World country. Doing tax returns is something I’m good at, and I was helping people. I enjoyed the experience so much that I subsequently became the accountant for a volunteer organization at a hospital and, later, one at a nursing home. Two years after starting with the hospital, I joined SCORE.

SCORE is the Service Corps of Retired Executives, a nationwide organization of volunteers who offer advice to people wanting to start businesses or who are having problems with their existing small companies. The local group I joined had an office in downtown Cleveland. I’m sure there are people who view us as a bunch of older men and women just looking for an excuse to get out of the house and a place to hang out. I probably imagined the same thing before I got involved.

I remember wondering whether I could help a person who wanted to open a restaurant, a beauty shop or an office cleaning service. I’d spent my years in the corporate world of large organizations, and the problems I’d dealt with seemed a world apart from those of budding entrepreneurs. It soon became apparent, though, that the situations were not that different. Many problems require mostly common sense, and if you live long enough you acquire a lot of that. It’s a little like being back at work, solving challenging problems but without the pressure we all were happy to give up when we retired.

Sometimes our greatest contribution is to persuade a person not to go forward with a venture they’re certain will work. One woman came to us wanting to open a store and sell religious items like Bibles, religious CDs and choir robes. When asked why she wanted to give up her good job and undertake this venture, she said, “The Lord wants me to do it” — a tough argument to refute.

It took several sessions, but after taking her through the numbers we were eventually able to explain to her how many Bibles and CDs she would have to sell each day just to pay the rent on the store and replace her current salary, which she depended on to feed and shelter her family. To keep her right with the Lord, we suggested she arrange instead to sell her products through local churches. She could give them a share of the profits and keep her own finances secure. She left with a smile on her face.

Another time a man who had realized his dream of opening an entertainment center and restaurant was faced with seemingly insurmountable problems because of delays getting started. His losses threatened to wipe out the venture just as it was getting under way. It was apparent that he was extremely depressed, and his wife was concerned for his health. I made some suggestions to help him get through this difficult start-up period.

I also told him he needed to step back and see that the world would not end if the business failed. He had retired with a good pension, and while he might lose most of his net worth, he and his wife would still have a sufficient income to live reasonably well. I also reminded him that there are no longer debtor’s prisons. A month later I got a card from his wife saying how much better his outlook was and that the business was still operating. That day I went home with a smile on my face.

Getting to know people who have lived interesting lives is equally as interesting as discussing plans and aspirations with much younger people. During my time at SCORE I’ve counseled, among others, a dancer who wanted to open her own school, a woman who wanted to design and sell hip-hop clothing, and a young man who wanted to make movies.

At SCORE we talk about encouraging entrepreneurship, making a contribution to the economy and spurring economic growth, but what we are really doing is helping people.

I’ve decided this is how I want to spend my free time. It helps me go to sleep most nights feeling it has been a good and productive day.
Besides, it is a good excuse to get out of the house and a cool place to hang out.

Cal Cohen was vice president and chief financial officer of Bobbie Brooks Inc. in Cleveland.