Harry Dictor joined the Service Corps of Retired Executives in 1988, thinking it would be a useful diversion from his successful real estate development and construction business.
But little by little, as he helped business neophytes chart a course through the byzantine rules, routines and regulations of commerce, Dictor began spending more time with SCORE and less time developing real estate.
Today, as both a mentor and director of the 14 workshops SCORE offers each month in Glendale, Dictor spends nearly 40 hours a week helping owners of small businesses get started and stay successful.
He is among 13,000 volunteers nationwide who staff SCORE, a nonprofit organization funded by the federal Small Business Administration.
"SCORE is the most fun I think I've ever had," Dictor said. "The hardest thing in the world is to learn things about your business because you can't go to a competitor and say, 'Teach me.' Here are people who have already been there and are ready to teach you."
And after lessons--which take place monthly, weekly or just about hourly in the case of some nervous clients--Dictor has the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of jobs well done. His success stories range from the man he helped start a cowboy poet's bar to the woman he is encouraging to move her homemade pickle products out of a different sort of pickle: underproduction.
"Harry is a real shoulder to lean on," said pickle entrepreneur Marsha Gomez, 53, the owner of Aunt Polly's Pickles (soon to be at a gourmet store near you, she hopes). "I don't know if I would have forged ahead and looked to expansion in the capacity that I'm going to if it hadn't been for him."
One of Dictor's first clients was a man who fell in love with a small town in North Dakota and was determined to move there and open a restaurant--the Cowboy Poet's Bar & Grill. Knowing little about cowboys, poetry or restaurants, Dictor nonetheless taught the man about financing, marketing, getting customers and keeping them.
Dictor helped the budding restaurateur develop a 32-page business proposal that he could use to get bank financing; practice his pitch on another SCORE colleague, a retired bank loan officer; research the prices, quality and entertainment that residents expect from their restaurants; check out the local competition, and set up a partnership agreement with his fiancee, who planned to help run the place.
"Frequently we get people with a totally unrealistic idea of what they can do," Dictor said. In those cases, he said, his role changes. Most of the time he tries to help people make money; sometimes he has to keep them from losing their shirts.
One man came to Dictor with an abiding love of airplanes--and not much more. He dreamed of starting "Joe's Airline," and wanted Dictor's help to secure financing.
"It just amazed me," Dictor said. "You can't put somebody down, but I had to take him step by step through why this wouldn't work."
Gomez is Dictor's latest--and most fun--project.
Sick of pickles that were too salty and too soft, Gomez, a nurse by training, decided to create a better product. Working as a caterer for a private school's lunch program, she spent the early weeks of her endeavor in the school's kitchen, trying to develop a formula.
When she had a product, she sent it to a lab for nutritional testing. Gomez says the analysis showed her pickles had less than half the sodium of any pickle on the market.
At first, Gomez plied her products at farmer's markets, making, labeling and packing as many pickles as she could. Business was brisk, she said, and she soon moved the operation to a facility that was more her own even if it was less auspicious: the back of a Burbank hot dog stand.
Then one farmer's market customer bit into all three of her pickle products and declared that he wanted to serve and sell them at all four of his restaurants.
That's when Gomez needed advice. Currently making a maximum of 200 one-quart jars by hand each week, Gomez is going to have to increase her output fivefold.
With Dictor's guidance, Gomez is negotiating a lease for a commercial kitchen and developing a marketing plan that will include new labels and an advertising campaign. With the new kitchen, she will need new and more efficient equipment than the two hands that now get her through the day. She figures she will also need to hire help.
In their meetings at Los Angeles County's main SCORE office in Glendale, Dictor guides Gomez through a series of questions and computations, offering reference materials, work sheets and examples from his own experience in working with customers, suppliers and employees.
"Harry's a great resource to helping find sources to fulfill my needs," Gomez said. "I was really kind of nervous to go ahead--I'm not familiar with workman's comp and all that kind of thing.
"This shows earmarks of being big, and so it's nice to have a support system that says, 'We'll help you through this and it's not as overwhelming as you think it is.' "
Recently, Dictor received a cowboy poem from the owner of that bar and grill in North Dakota.
"The Business Funding Blues" is the saga of how the poet found his way to SCORE and to Dictor:
He soon gives you advice, which is timely and fact-filled.
Not only does he provide you with guidance, he instills you with confidence.
Indeed he inspires!
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Today's focus is the Service Corps of Retired Executives. SCORE's Los Angeles County headquarters in Glendale is open weekdays from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. No appointments are necessary. Other counselors are available by appointment at several area chambers of commerce. For more information, call (818) 552-3206.