Mentoring for small business owners is available in the Hubbard County area through the SCORE program.

The acronym no longer stands for anything, but it used to mean Service Corps of Retired Executives. Certified mentor Lou Schultz explained, "Not everyone is retired anymore."

About 12 years ago, he recalled, the Park Rapids Branch of Central Minnesota SCORE grew out of a conversation he had with David Collins, then-executive director of what is now Heartland Lakes Community Development (HLCD).

"This is considered a branch office of SCORE," said Schultz. "We're a branch of the St. Cloud chapter."

"We informally have our own group, that can decide how to market ourselves, and we have a staff member that helps with the administration," added Mark Hewitt, referring to Carolyn Pfeifer at HLCD.

Hewitt, Schultz and Tom Miller are longtime SCORE mentors. A new addition to their team is Mike Moore, who recently moved into the area.

SCORE is a program of the U.S. Small Business Administration. "A lot of our reporting ends up getting put together with reporting from around the country, and so trends and data are developed by the SCORE program," Moore said. "We're focused on what's going on with our clients here, locally, but it's part of a bigger picture."

Miller noted that hundreds of thousands of small businesses start up every year in the U.S., a number that has grown steeply in recent years - "but new businesses are often fragile businesses," he said. "Many new business entrepreneurs find that they do not have the skills to run and grow a business successfully."

As a result, Miller estimated that 90 percent of new businesses are out of business within 10 years.

SCORE's mission is to provide clients with resources and ideas for starting and growing a business.

Among the program's local success stories, Miller recalled an entrepreneur who called SCORE in to help him understand why his business was "hemorrhaging money."

"The SCORE rep did a spreadsheet analysis of the business' operations," said Miller. It revealed that an employee had stolen more than $30,000 from the business, "and helped the owner institute sound cost controls and improve the efficiency of his advertising."

Among other wins for Park Rapids SCORE clients, Miller mentioned a special offer that led to enough orders to get a business through a short-term cash crunch and help developing a plan so a dissatisfied employee could start her own business.

Schultz recalled talking a dysfunctional family through a vision statement for their jointly owned business. "They're here today," he said, tracing a path with his finger. "Where do they want to be in five years? If they can describe that in a simple form that's memorable, inspirational and compelling, then it's easy to do what it actually takes to get there."

'Sounding board'

Moore said, "I think a lot of the people that use the program are smart. They probably, in the back of their mind, have the answer to the question they're seeking. But, coming from somebody who's 'been there, done that,' has value."

With mentors coming from a variety of business backgrounds and specializing in different areas, they often refer clients to colleagues who have the knowledge to help them.

"When I offer my services," said Hewitt, "it's kind of like an unpaid board member. We're not going to run your business. We're kind of a sounding board. I try to get people to think through their own solutions."

He added, "A lot of it is pointing people toward where there's resources that they can look up and learn."

'A ton of information'

Mentors go through a certification process and meet annual continuing education requirements. Schulz said they also make use of "A Guide to Starting a Business in Minnesota," a thick volume updated annually by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development's Small Business Assistance Office.

"It's got a ton of information in it," said Schultz. The resource is available free at 1-800-310-8323 and deed.mnsbao@state.mn.us.

"SCORE has a lot of web-based material you can go to," Hewitt added.

Entrepreneurs nationwide can visit www.score.org to find online workshops, mentoring, ideas and resources on a wide range of topics, including information tailored to women, veterans, minorities and youth.

To connect locally with volunteer mentors, call Pfeifer at 732-2259 or visit www.hubbardcountyedc.com/SCORE.