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SCORE Troops Score Top Marks As Business Advisors

by Alf Nucifora

It's almost impossible to find a small business that doesn't have a serious need for business counsel and experience-driven advice. Consultants are available, but are often unaffordable or insufficiently trusted from a motives' viewpoint. Peer group outfits, such as TEC or Renaissance Executive Forums can be a valuable resource. But the least heralded of the options is the Service Corps Of Retired Executives (SCORE), an army of retired business men and women who, in retirement, prefer to offer their services on a gratis basis as business Sherpas to those in need rather than see out their remaining days on the golf course.

The forty-one year old organization is funded by Congress and administered by the Federal Government's Small Business Administration (SBA). SCORE's span of influence is impressive. Eleven thousand counselors operate out of 389 chapters in the U.S., that's in addition to the 1,200 counselors who advise and consult online, a teaching channel that has become exceptionally popular with time-constrained business owners who often don't have time during the regular working day to attend to remedial business needs or strategic introspection. In 2004, SCORE counselors provided advisory services to business owners and entrepreneurs in more than 359,000 instances. Those who seek help from SCORE are not charged a fee unless they attend group workshops which are offered on an optional basis for $30-50 a session.

While 20% of SCORE counselors are still serving as active business practitioners, the other 80% are retirees from business who hold a strong a desire to give back. Counselors come from every sector of the business world such as corporate America, retailing, service industries, manufacturing, etc. All business functions are represented including sales, marketing, human resources, production, operations and finance. Businesses in need can receive help based on specific, customized need that can encompass dealing with management and strategic issues as well as coping with in-the-trenches operational concerns. Obviously, the entrepreneurial sector represents fertile territory for SCORE. National spokesperson, Michael Keaton, advises that a major and growing demand for the organization's services lies in the area of start-ups.

Why come to SCORE?

The primary benefit lies in having access to advisors who have accumulated a lifetime of hands-on experience. The scope of advice covers the waterfront…assistance to start-ups and fledgling operations, remedial counsel to companies encountering problems and challenges and guidance to successful businesses that need to manage sudden and surging growth. And the best part-it's free. Nobody gets turned away. Notes Keaton, "If you've got a legitimate business need, we'll find the time to help you".

Case studies where SCORE has been of help abound. Tom Martin, Vice Chairman, Marketing for the Atlanta chapter of SCORE cites a local start-up that required business and marketing plans for a product innovation that utilizes vegetable-based core ingredients in the manufacturing of coolers. Keaton quotes examples of a New York-based company seeking help in franchising its kid's party concept and a high-end rug cleaning company seeking business counsel.

What's the process?

The protocol for working with a SCORE is relatively straight forward. Interested parties first talk to a counselor by phone or email as part of a screening process. Once the need has been discussed and validated, an appointment is made and the applicant is matched with an appropriate local advisor based on background, industry or functional requirement. The company's existing or prospective plans are reviewed (if they exist), current operations are analyzed and appropriate recommendations made. In the best of cases, a traditional consulting relationship develops between applicant and counselor which can extend from a short term engagement to a long term, ongoing partnership. And, not to belabor the point, it's totally free.

One is always reminded of the adage, "You get what you pay for". Following that line of reasoning, SCORE's cost-free service could conceivably raise an eyebrow or two. There is a point of difference, however, that legitimizes SCORE's activities, and that's the background and mindset of its corps of counselors. An altruistic desire to help others and, in an ironic twist of the organization's name, the desire to remain active in mind even if retired in career, are the predominant traits of the average counselor. And therein lies the legitimacy of the organization and the value of the service it provides.

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