Former executives use their experience to help local business startups succeed

You don’t have to sell Barry Harkless on the benefits of SCORE.

Harkless went to SCORE for help before he bought the Mall Barber Shop from John Burk in July 2007.

“They told me what I should do and what I should expect. It is free, and you are dealing with people who are experienced in business and can help you with your financing and your business plan and everything you need to do to open up a business,” Harkless said. “Their help was excellent. I am now looking into becoming a SCORE counselor.”

Formerly known as Senior Corps of Retired Executives, SCORE nationally is marking its 50th anniversary in 2014.

SCORE has served more than 10 million entrepreneurs since 1964, providing mentoring, counseling and coaching sessions for entrepreneurs and small business owners in its 50 year history. Today, SCORE has a network of 320 chapter locations and 11,000 volunteer mentors dispersed throughout the country, according to the Small Business Administration.

SCORE volunteers are trained to serve as counselors, advisers and mentors to aspiring entrepreneurs and business owners, and their services are offered at no cost.

“Thanks to SCORE, the small business community is able to reach so many entrepreneurs and small business owners to make sure they have the tools and resources they need to succeed,” said SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet in a statement.

Jason Morse and Rob Luciano also are among the numerous local business owners who have benefited from SCORE counseling.

“I went to them so I wouldn’t miss anything. They helped me get organized and start off on the right foot. I’ve been in business 10 years, and they were more or less a consultant in the beginning. It is unbelievable to have that experience available to you at no cost. Those guys are phenomenal,” said Morse, who started Clear Air, a commercial residential air duct cleaning service in 2005.

Luciano, president of Glass Mender, which he started in 1986, went to SCORE looking for advice.

“You talk to people who have been in business for a long time that gives you the energy, confidence and advice you need to take that next step forward. It was just what I needed. We had a game plan, but I needed to talk to someone to say if it was a good idea or a bad idea,” Luciano said.

The local SCORE chapter, now known as the Alleghenies Chapter, was founded in 1987 as a satellite chapter of the Pittsburgh Chapter, said chapter secretary John R. Beyer, 84, retired president and CEO of Mid-State Bank and Keystone Financial.

Beyer credits Bob Couch, who moved to Altoona to become executive director of the Altoona-Blair County Chamber of Commerce, with bringing the idea to the area.

“I had never heard of SCORE. No one in the community knew anything about it. He was the greatest influence to our having a chapter,” Beyer said. “Robert Mattern of First National Bank, me and Ted Maier (former chamber executive director) were the three organizers.”

SCORE’s first office was in the chamber building on 12th Avenue and is now housed in the Devorris Center for Business Development.

The chapter started with 18 members and today has 45 members, 25 of whom are active.

“We work with those who have a dream, a thought of wanting to get into business, to start up a business,” said chapter co-chairman Peter Hart, 81, retired CEO of Altoona Pipe and Steel. “We also work with people who want to expand their business or have a problem with their business, both profits and nonprofits.”

SCORE counselors offer advice to their clients.

“We guide them on things and give them advice based on our experiences. We try to be good listeners and help them look at different aspects of things. We share our business experience,”Hart said.

“We try not to discourage a client from doing what they are doing but point out the pitfalls of what we see. We try to get them to think about things from all sides,” Beyer said.

Establishing a good counselor-client relationship is important.

“If you don’t establish a relationship with the client it isn’t going to work,” said Lee Helmer, 77, retired general manager of Sears in the Logan Valley Mall.

Funding is the biggest problem facing start up businesses.

“We counsel them that debt is not good. Clients don’t always follow our advice,” Hart said. “We tell them things they can do to improve their business. We try to help the younger ones who are in trouble and need help. We try to get them back on track.”

Local SCORE members said they have seen a change in clientele.

“I’ve been a counselor for 13 years. Initially they were older, just retired or empty nesters,” Hart said. “Now we are getting clients who are much younger and are motivated because they can’t find a job, they are not as afraid as the prior generation about borrowing and being in debt.”

Not all SCORE members wish to become counselors.

“When we recruit our people, their business experience is very important. Not all want to do counseling, some want to be in the administrative end and make a big contribution in that way,” Hart said. “We have been successful in getting a fair number of legal firms and accounting firms to offer to our clients pro bono service.”

Chapter Vice Chairman Lou Grillo, 62, who owns three small businesses including American Solutions Group Inc., PJs Bar and Grill and Loricos Market, has been a SCORE member for two years.

“About 25 to 30 years ago in New York, I started a trucking company and went to see SCORE, so it was my time to give back,” Grillo said.

SCORE’s services have evolved over the years with email counseling available so a client can receive help from counselors nationwide, however, most counseling remains face to face, Hart said.

SCORE members enjoy helping clients.

“It makes me feel I am contributing to help businesses continue. We need businesses to grow. If we can make a mark, it is all good. It makes us feel good to help people,” Beyer said.

“You feel like part of the business. It is great to see them open up and be successful. I take a great deal of pride in that aspect,” Helmer said.