Not yet ready for a comfortable retirement, many baby boomers are seeking out meaningful second careers.
When Cathy Buck bought the Cameo Cinema in St. Helena five and a half years ago, the only thing she knew about movies was how to go to them. Now she’s the proprietor, projectionist and “gal Friday” at one of the nation’s few remaining individually owned, single-screen movie theaters.
Until 2005, Buck had led a very different life as a career real estate agent in Michigan. “But I felt like my brain was turning to mush,” she says about selling property for 22 years in the state where she was born and raised. “I was also really tired of the winters there.”
Then, during a visit to the West Coast, Buck went wine tasting in Napa Valley. “I’d been to Europe and loved the slower pace there, and Napa Valley felt like Europe to me,” she says. “I decided this was the place I wanted to be.”
Buck commuted for a time between Michigan and Northern California, getting a feel for the change of seasons here. She decided to pull up stakes and leave behind the real estate business for good, along with the cold, snowy winters of the upper Midwest.
“I came here with nothing,” says Buck, now 55, about her move to St. Helena. “Then I spent the next six months walking through vineyards and asking myself, ‘Now what do I want to do?’”
Boomers leading the way
Buck represents a trend among baby boomers seeking a fresh start in their working lives. As many as 9 million Americans between the ages of 44 and 70 are already in “encore” careers, and another 31 million in the same age group would like to be. That’s the finding of Civic Ventures, a San Francisco-based think tank that studies boomers, work and social purpose.
Entrepreneurism among baby boomers is also on the rise. For all the media coverage they receive, you might think it’s the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world—the Gen X and Gen Y demographic—leading the entrepreneurial movement in America. Think again. The highest number of entrepreneurs in the nation today is among the generation born between 1946 and 1964, according to statistics compiled by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, an organization dedicated to the advancement of entrepreneurism. The foundation’s latest study also reports that U.S. entrepreneurs ages 55 to 64 grew from 14.3 percent to 20.9 percent between 1996 and 2011.
“My work supports those figures,” says Barbara Waxman, MS, MPA, PCC, a Marin County-based executive and life coach for adults “midlife and better,” as she describes her practice of preparing this age group for encore careers and running their own businesses. She says the term “encore career,” coined by Marc Freedman of Civic Ventures, best describes the livelihoods of those who are in second or even third careers and beyond.
“What I tend see among my clients is a shift from climbing the corporate ladder to doing work that’s more personally meaningful to them,” adds Waxman.
From selling homes to selling Hollywood
When Buck went looking for more meaningful work, she found it. With the help of a new friend, she first landed a tasting room job and learned about wine from the ground up. Then she heard that the Cameo Cinema on St. Helena’s Main Street was for sale. Sensing another encore career calling to her, she went for it.
“I told the Cameo’s owner that I didn’t have a lot of money but I was a hard worker,” explains Buck. “She saw that I was passionate, and she gave me a year to prove myself—and the opportunity to make payments on the purchase price. It turned out to be a good move for everybody involved.”
Buck says her life today is more about quality than quantity and admits that running the 140-seat Cameo is probably the hardest she’s ever worked in her life—but it’s also the most fun. “I’m 100 percent self-taught in this career reversal, and it was a tough learning curve,” she says. “But it really gets the neurons firing!”
One of the best things about being the “face” of the Cameo, she says, is talking with her regular patrons about the theater. “Some of them remember coming to the Cameo as kids, and they want to share past experiences and stories with me. I hear a great story almost every day.”
The Cameo first opened in 1913 and, except for short periods when it closed for renovations, it’s been in operation almost continuously. The previous owner remodeled the interior several years ago. In 2009, Buck tapped into grant money from Nimbus Arts to give the Cameo a huge technology overhaul with digital and 3-D projection equipment. “It’s a big financial hit for any theater, from $70,000 to $150,000, to convert to digital from film-only,” she says, explaining that the movie industry is doing away with film prints for new releases beginning in 2013.
On any given day, the Cameo’s marquee announces first-run Hollywood blockbusters as well as lesser-known art films. Buck also stages occasional live events in the venue. In spring 2011, she filled the theater for the 2 a.m. live feed of the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in London (a free community event).
As owner of the Cameo, Buck conducts all behind-the-scenes work, acts as technical guru and projectionist, and handles the marketing duties. She’s currently making big plans for the theater’s 100th anniversary next May, including showings of the first movie that lit up the Cameo’s silver screen in 1913, a silent film titled “Kings of the Forest.”
If there’s a downside to being the boss, Buck says it’s not having a big parent corporation to help out in tough times. “Single-screen theaters usually aren’t viable businesses. They can’t operate in the black and so require community support to help keep the doors open,” she says. “The hard part for me is asking for donations, yet the St. Helena and Napa Valley community have been great about rallying around to help.”
On the upside of business ownership, Buck is keenly aware of where the theater’s finances stand every day. “When I go to bed at night, I know what the cash flow is and if the patrons are happy,” she says. “When I wake up, I ask myself if I want to go back and do it again. If the day comes when the answer is ‘no,’ then I’ll do something else. I don’t know what my next career will be, but I’m sure there are one or two more left in me.”
Buck’s advice to other boomers seeking an encore career or a business of their own is to just take the leap. “At this age, we don’t have to do anything that doesn’t make us happy anymore. But it takes a lot of courage to reach that stage. So if there’s something you find interesting and an opportunity arises, the challenge will be exciting.”
Too early for retirement
Faced with relocating to Colorado as part of an Agilent Technologies restructuring in 2009, Steve Hinch of Santa Rosa opted instead for early retirement. Then he and his wife, Nicki, spent the first few months of his “retirement” attempting to launch a startup high-tech company to produce iPhone and smartphone apps.
“I put together a team and had some financing interest from venture capitalists,” says Hinch, now 60. “But eventually, Nicki and I decided that having to start a new company from scratch wasn’t the way we wanted to spend our time at this point in our lives.”
Yet 2009 was a scary year to be looking for work. “I’d heard stories about how hard it is to get a job in the corporate world after a certain age, and we weren’t ready to be retired,” says Hinch. So the couple looked into the franchise market with the assistance of a franchise broker.
“We went with a franchise opportunity because we felt it was much less risky,” says Hinch. “We didn’t want to invest money from our retirement fund and watch it disappear if a new startup didn’t work out.”
The broker matched the Hinches with potential opportunities that fit with their goals and lifestyles, and the TeamLogic IT business model, which appeared to meet their criteria, rose to the top of the list.
Drawing from his 35-year career at Agilent/Hewlett-Packard, including senior positions in marketing, research and development, and business management, Steve Hinch knew what it was like to run a business, “even though I was only one person in a very large organization,” he adds. “But with a franchise, I could follow a proven business model and I’d be totally responsible for its success.”
The Hinches’ TeamLogic IT operation in Santa Rosa, which opened for business in August 2010, provides information technology support to companies of all sizes throughout Sonoma County. They currently employ two full-time technicians and may soon add a third. Their client list includes Conklin Bros. and Vineyard & Winery Management magazine.
The Hinches must be doing something right: “TeamLogic IT was recently ranked number one in franchisee satisfaction for all technology franchises,” says Hinch with pride. There are approximately 50 TeamLogic IT locations across the United States and in the Netherlands.
Following a franchise model to success
A huge component of the Hinches’ business plan is focused on marketing and seeking out new business customers. “We have to be out there in front of the clients to get more business,” says Hinch. “We also find new customers through referrals.”
Nicki Hinch says she was confident they could make TeamLogic IT successful because of Steve’s good business sense and her own good organizational skills. “We’re also following the franchise model and have found out pretty quickly that it works,” she says. “I’ve learned so much and also discovered I’m really good at marketing.”
Both agree that they take their work home with them. “I don’t think I’m working any more hours than I did at Agilent, but I do lay awake at night worrying about how to keep the business successful,” says Steve. But the couple doesn’t usually work on weekends, and they’ve managed to take some quality time off, too. “It hasn’t been nose-to-the-grindstone all the time,” he adds.
Starting a franchise business after the age of 55 can be rewarding, Steve says, but don’t expect it to be profitable right away. “You need passion and a lot of energy, as well as a complete understanding of what you’re getting into. You’ll also need the financial resources to survive a couple of years without making a profit.”
The best thing about owning their business, adds Nicki, “is that it’s ours, and we don’t have to answer to anybody. It’s on my mind a lot at home, and I sometimes worry about what needs to get done the next day. But Steve and I think of this as an adventure, and we aren’t ready to retire yet.”
Taking a risk on a home-based practice
Deborah Glasser Kolly has spent more than 25 years in labor relations, negotiating contracts for public- and private-sector clients and nonprofit organizations. But until last year, she performed those duties as an employee, most recently working for a San Francisco labor law firm and prior to that holding senior positions with the Service Employees International Union and the Northern California Newspaper Guild. In spring 2011, she struck out on her own and launched Glasser Kolly Labor Relations, based at her home office in San Rafael.
“I feel very inspired by my choice,” says the 56-year-old Glasser Kolly about starting her own non-attorney practice representing management in labor relations. “I took a risk, and I’m pleased with the outcome.”
Before deciding to stay in her life’s occupation, Glasser Kolly flirted briefly with the notion of a 180-degree career turn into home decorating and staging. “It would’ve been a wonderfully creative outlet for me, but it was a short-lived idea—more fantasy than reality,” she says. “My type of advocacy work continues to be my passion, and it’s always been a part of my life. I’m not ready to retire that piece of myself.”
She credits the assistance of life coach Waxman with keeping her focused on managing a business on her own. “Barbara helped me on a micro level to sort through the types of fears that may block many of us from going out on our own. That’s the difficult part of getting started—dealing with the unknown,” she adds.
Glasser Kolly represents cities, counties, schools and community colleges, among others, assisting with personnel matters such as wage and benefits negotiations, grievances and workplace disputes. When necessary, she partners with other experts in her field on special cases and projects.
By not carrying a payroll or leasing office space, Glasser Kolly can afford to offer her clients a better rate. “The lifeline of my business is referrals, and I have clients I’ve been working with for many years who decided they wanted to continue with my services when I went out on my own,” she explains. “It was a hit-the-ground-running opportunity for me.”
As her own boss, it’s also more gratifying to hear directly from clients who appreciate her negotiating skills. “When I worked for employers, a client’s appreciation didn’t necessarily get back to me, because there are a lot of buffers and people running interference,” says Glasser Kolly. “But as the principal of my own business, I hear the appreciation first-hand now. That type of recognition goes a long way toward keeping me motivated.”
Listening to the dog snore
She admits running a business from home has both advantages and disadvantages. “The best thing is the independence and the freedom to work with select clients,” says Glasser Kolly.
“Keeping my own hours and schedule is a big plus, too. Usually you can’t do that when working for an employer,” she adds, noting that her beloved golden retriever frequently snores in his sleep on the floor in her office.
On the flip side, household distractions can be challenging at times for Glasser Kolly, whose husband, Tim, also runs a business from the couple’s home. For instance, the printer they both use is located in her office. Tim can forget she’s on an important phone call when he sends a document for printing and the device suddenly springs to life with a racket. “But I’ll trade those minor frustrations any day for having to get up and drive in traffic,” she laughs.
Glasser Kolly and her husband can also “do what we want, when we want,” she says, such as enjoy a leisurely lunch, go for hikes, schedule a long weekend away and avoid the weekend crowds at places like Home Depot and Costco by shopping on weekdays.
To others in her age group, Glasser Kolly recommends following their dreams into encore careers. “We boomers have worked very hard to develop ourselves professionally. And though starting your own business may be one of the scariest decisions to make, it’s full of rewards that will outweigh the challenges. Take a deep breath and just go for it.”