Business - going it alone in middle age

8th of January 2020
Business - going it alone in middle age

New kids on the block are changing perceptions about what makes a successful entrepreneur. But these rising stars of the business world are far from being kids anymore and in terms of life experience have already been around the block a dizzying number of times. Hartley Milner meets the ‘olderpreneurs’ and shares their stories.

A wave of redundancies was sweeping through the UK car plant like a plague. A survivor of many a cull in the past, assembly line technician Martin Hewitt learnt his fortunes had finally turned and he was about to lose his job to a robot.

“In hindsight, I probably could have seen this coming,” Martin told ECJ. “Over my 37 years in the motor industry, I had seen numerous slumps and each time manufacturers responded by cutting production jobs and ramping up automation. We were now in the worst recession for decades and it was happening all over again. I suppose the only surprising thing was that I had managed to hang on for so long.”

As he approached his 57th birthday, Martin was left to reflect on his options. “I knew I was not going to find a job paying anything like what I was earning before,” he said. “My partner was in part-time work, but we would not get by for long on her income alone. And I was still years away from drawing a pension. The future was looking bleak and rather scary.”

Martin’s thoughts were careering round his head like a pinball. So he sought respite in his hobby, making and restoring furniture. While working on an 18th century oak coffer for a neighbour, an
idea flashed across his mind…was the solution to his woes literally in his hands? Could he turn his life-long love of carpentry into a business?

New career?

“I had looked at a career working with wood on leaving school, but traditional cabinetmaking was in decline and I could see no future in it,” he continued. “Now, all this had changed. Bespoke handcrafted furniture was back in fashion and there seemed to be almost as much on TV about salvaging and restoring old furniture as cookery shows. So I saw there could be a demand for my skills, but did I have what it takes to run a business?”

Martin decided he needed mentoring and turned to a small business adviser. Six months later, Gateshead Fine Furniture was up and running from his home workshop. “Commissions started coming in but not as fast as the money was going out,” he said. “I had got through my £16,000 (€18,700) redundancy pay and had started eating into my savings. But then I won a contract to make retro-furniture for a new restaurant. This led to further commissions from the restaurant chain and things picked up from there.”

Martin has since moved onto an artisan crafts park where he employs eight people, six full-time, and has clients throughout the UK and overseas. The furniture making side of the business is managed by one of his sons while he focuses on commissioned restoration projects. In addition, he writes about furniture topics, runs woodworking courses and has a shop selling period furniture he buys himself at auctions and restores.

He said: “I am where I wanted to be, making a good living out of something I am passionate about. Of course, it was a gamble that could have gone horribly wrong. My top tip to others going into business for the first time is to seek professional advice at every stage of the process, it greatly loads the odds in your favour.”

Martin’s guiding spirit was Philip Peters, who specialises in advising olderpreneur start-ups. Philip highlighted some personal qualities he believes give silver go-getters an edge over more youthful so-called wonder kids.

“For one thing, older people today generally enjoy better health and are far fitter than they used to be,” Philip explained. “They will have accumulated many more years of work experience, have more life skills, knowledge, integrity and wisdom, and take a more thoughtful, assiduous approach to whatever they do.”

Older people have greater access to finance. In the UK, pension freedoms have made it possible to draw on retirement funds from the age of 55, plus transfer valuations on final salary schemes have soared in recent years. This makes it possible to access valuable lump sums, or even borrow against the value of a pension. Those who own their home outright will have serious equity available to them. But Philip cautioned: “Think hard before going down this path…you won’t want to risk being left without a roof over your head!”

Sources of finance

He said other sources of start-up finance may be available from government-backed loan schemes, peer-to-peer lending or, increasingly for baby boomers, an inheritance. People receiving state benefits may be eligible for an enterprise allowance and further government venture funding.

Philip started his consultancy late in life himself, having quit his job as a small business adviser with a large high street bank in 2014, aged 60. He said: “I was meeting increasing numbers of older people wanting to go into business for themselves and saw there was little help available tailored to their specific requirements. Starting a business can be risky at any age, but at their time of life getting it wrong can prove especially costly, even disastrous, for their futures.”

He now employs a team of four advisers – all aged over 50 – and can fall back on business people with proven track records to provide advice in more specialist areas. Plus he runs business networking events, business education seminars and workshops and is a habitual blogger. Through his mentoring programmes, Philip reckons he has helped more than 300 seniors set up and run successful enterprises.

Franchise an option

Figures from the Office for National Statistics in the UK show the over-50s make up 43 per cent of those who start their own businesses in the UK. A recent report from Barclays bank highlighted that people over 55 are 63 per cent more likely to start businesses than 10 years ago.

And the rise in business owners does not only apply to founders in their 50s…the number of self-employed people aged 65 and over more than doubled between 2013 and 2018.

Even more remarkably, by the age of 70, almost 60 per cent of people still in work are self-employed. Furthermore, around 70 per cent of businesses started by older entrepreneurs last longer than three years compared with only 28 per cent set up by their younger counterparts.

For the more risk-averse, buying a franchise has become an increasingly popular choice in the UK. The number of franchise-owned businesses has grown by 70 per cent during the past decade and now account for €13.7bn annually in sales. Franchises require a lower financial outlay and the chances of success are greater because the product or service has already been tried and tested. The package includes training, ongoing support and advice, plus guidance on the best route to market.

Steve Brown, of Thatcham near Newbury, Berkshire, took on a franchise in 2010 to provide an escape from the tedium of retirement. A year earlier, at the age of 58, he had quit his job as a global support manager with a large IT firm after growing weary of working long hours in a pressurised environment.

“I didn’t plan to go back to work, I had enough to live on but I got bored after 12 months,” he said. “I suddenly realised I had no motivation to get out of bed, nothing to plan for. Sitting watching the TV and doing the garden didn’t appeal to me anymore. I wanted something where I could work from home and there would be repeat business.

“My daughter, TJ, who had been an office manager, was coming off maternity leave and we went to a franchise show. I wanted something where I could work from home and there would be repeat business. I did not want to sell products.”

The pair got chatting with representatives of Rosemary Bookkeeping at the show and felt that the franchise opportunity being offered would suit them both, so they went into partnership. The initial cost of the franchise was about €17,500 and Mr Brown said he put more money into the business in the first year than he took out.

But the business prospered and in September 2016, Mr Brown won the British Franchise Association award for olderpreneur of the year. By then, he was employing five people and had a record of increasing revenues by 30 to 40 per cent a year. He also set up a virtual office on Skype, and has saved clients money through the automation of bookkeeping processes.

“My message to anyone my age who’s thinking of a start-up is do it! What frightened me in that year I had off was the speed at which I slowed down mentally. But now I have a team of people working for me, we can set goals and achieve them and it keeps me young.”


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