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Daily Record

Jose Orlando Cruz Says There Is No Question About It. Working For Yourself Beats Working For Someone Else

From staff and news service reports

February 2, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Daily Record. All rights reserved.

Jose Orlando Cruz says there is no question about it. Working for yourself beats working for someone else.

"To be a boss is a plus," he said.

He and his wife, Consuelo Castillo, who own Consuelo's Travel in Lakewood, may work longer hours now than they did when they were hired hands at a corporation, but now they set their own schedule, instead of punching a clock.

"I can come in late when I want to," Cruz said.

Every day is different. "When you work 8 to 4 (in a corporate job), every day is exactly the same," he said.

"We feel alive again, talking with people," Cruz said.

The couple credit the counseling they received from the Ocean County chapter of SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) and its chairman, Bob Miesemer, for helping them start the business in 1999 and for helping them since then.

"It was a good help," Cruz said. "He showed us how to do a business plan."

The business plan gave them a game plan and highlighted many issues they might not have been aware of otherwise, Castillo said.

More employees like Cruz and Castillo are choosing to start their own business, Miesemer said, and more are seeking the counseling of organizations like SCORE.

More students think self-employment is a safer haven than working for big corporations. "Many saw parents downsized out of work," says John Challenger, CEO of executive outplacement consultant Challenger Gray & Christmas.

The Ocean County chapter of SCORE, based in Dover Township, has seen the number of people seeking counseling and attending its seminars increase between 15 percent and 20 percent in recent years, including last year, said Miesemer, a retired CEO of Royal Business Machines, New York.

In 2003, the chapter counseled about 500 people and 700 people attended its seminars, he said. The two categories overlap because some people who attend seminars sign up for one-on- one counseling.

The entrepreneurial spirit is also booming in Morris County, at least through the eyes of SCORE's Chapter 24.

Art Thomas, a SCORE counselor at the Morris County Chamber of Commerce, uses his 38 years of experience selling crude oil for ExxonMobil to help fuel the initial fire of prospective business owners by providing them with the fundamentals to grow.

A SCORE volunteer since 1994, Thomas has counseled a spectrum of hopefuls, dispensing advice to idea enthusiasts with development inquiries to already established business people.

"I get anyone from (those) wanting to start a painting or landscaping business to those with ideas for specialized sauces or other products to market," he said.

A typical SCORE advice-seeker ranges in age from 35 to 45 and may have suffered from downsizing, Thomas said.

"Many of them have developed expertise already and are looking to ways to market this expertise,"he said. "I help them develop a business plan, refer them to loan sources, and if they're serious about something specific, refer them to a specialty (SCORE) counselor."

According to Thomas, business choices trends have varied over the years; he noted a slight drop in consulting and an increase in mail order and retail.

Lauren Bobrow, owner of Lauren B. Inc., a women's clothing store on South Street in Morristown, struck retail success, partially crediting her sessions with SCORE.

"One of the most helpful things Art told me is to get experience in the industry in New Jersey," she said. "This was valid information."

Having lived in Maine, New York and Philadelphia, Bobrow faced the challenge of opening a business in the metropolitan area.

"I had experience from other places, but I think if you have experience here and you go to a less busy area it may be easier," she said.

Bobrow worked her business plan for about a year, concentrating on number crunching and scoping out markets before setting her sights on Morristown.

"I'd even cold survey women on the streets," she said.

With her well-rooted business plan at hand and her wealth of retail, wholesale and visual merchandising experience under her belt, Bobrow opened her doors in 1998 and hasn't looked back since.

"I was frustrated with jobs the I had and wasn't finding any of them to be a good fit," she said.

The first-time business owner dispensed some advice of her own: "Get ready to work really hard. It's the hardest that you'll ever work but the most rewarding."

The Monmouth County Chapter of SCORE, based at Brookdale Community College in Middletown, counseled about 500 people last year, an increase of 10 percent from 2002, said Bob Rickner, a member of the board of directors. Information on how many attended seminars was unavailable.

All SCORE counselors, such as Miesemer and Rickner, who himself is a retired director of marketing and communication -- are unpaid volunteers. SCORE receives funding and assistance from the federal Small Business Administration and gets donations from companies.

SCORE, which started nationally 40 years ago, is now a misnomer, Miesemer said, because some of the counselors are still working and not retired. Castillo, for example, has become a SCORE counselor.

The state also offers new would-be entrepreneurs help through the Entrepreneurial Training Institute, sponsored by the state Economic Development Authority and the state Development Authority for Small Businesses, Minorities' and Women's Enterprises. The Economic Development Authority also provides loans for small businesses.

The Entrepreneurial Training Institute will start a new set of classes for entrepreneurs around the state in March.

The federal government even opens its arms to entrepreneurs, providing a training ground at the Picatinny Technology Innovation Center at the Picatinny Arsenal in Rockaway Township.

The institute literally functions as a "business incubator" for start-up organizations with an existing business plan who want to "scale up" and grow, said Executive Director Vadim Pevzner.

The nonprofit center opened in 1996 and currently houses 15 companies, most technologically-oriented.

"We match the needs of the government with the services a small company can offer," said. "We want to offer the expertise the government has so they can help commercialize a companies services or product to the private sector. It's a real two way street.

In order to qualify, companies must provide an existing or working business plan to prove their level of commitment. The center then signs a licensing agreement with the companies which allows them to set up shop as a tenant for below-market rent, said.

The agreement also includes free phone and Internet access and a wide open networking door to contacts such as attorneys, advisory boards and government project managers.

"We'll even help them get furniture from government surplus," he said.

Rent varies from $8.00 per square for warehouse space to $10.00 per square foot for office space.

"As companies get closer to graduate the rent goes up," he said.

The average stay of a start-up is 3-6 years.

Beacon Dynamics in Andover and Cadence Exhibits in Dover are both "graduates" of the center.

More than 500 universities have entrepreneurship majors in undergraduate and MBA programs, up from as few as 175 in 1990.

Some observers believe economic downturns and layoffs spur increased interest in entrepreneurship, as laid-off employees try to start businesses. Miesemer said he believes the current economic recovery actually encourages more people to give entrepreneurship a try, because they believe they have a better chance of succeeding in good times.

James Barrod, executive director of The Rothman Institute at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Florham Park, cited the opposite claiming a surge in business-owner hopefuls during economic difficulties.

The Rothman Institute offers an MBA in entrepreneurship and a post-MBA certificate in entrepreneurship as well as an undergraduate degree.

Rickner said would-be entrepreneurs know that many new businesses fail, so they seek counseling to avoid mistakes borne of inexperience. SCORE estimates that 50 percent of start-ups fail within three years.

Monmouth University in West Long Branch does not yet offer an entrepreneurship major, but a year ago the School of Business Administration added a class in entrepreneurship.

Attendance in the class has increased each semester, said John Buzza, the adjunct professor who teaches the class.

About 35 students signed up to take the class this semester, which began last week, said Buzza, who is general manager of Nanina's in the Park, a catering business in Belleville.

"This will be the third semester," he said. "I think what the university is trying to do is give the student real-world experience. Also to let the student know that there is an alternative to working in corporate America."

Last semester, students in the class started their own business, In a Bind gift boxes.

"We were producing gift boxes for the holidays," Buzza said. "We went through all the necessary steps of production, marketing, distribution, sales, Web site design and accounting."

The 17 students who ran the business had a goal of $1,000 profit. They wound up earning $1,800, which was donated to a business scholarship fund, Buzza said. The students in the class this semester will start a different business.

No matter how thorough business courses are, a student who just takes courses is like a boxer who trains in a gym but has not had a fight in the ring, Buzza said.

"Until he gets in the ring, he really hasn't experienced what fighting is all about," he said. Entrepreneurship classes try to give students "a couple fights under their belt," he said.

Even if a student never starts his or her own business, entrepreneurship classes make the student more appealing to large corporations, who want employees with an entrepreneur spirit, initiative and imagination, Buzza said.

"They need good thinkers rather than a (passive) 9-to-5 employee who asks (in a job interview) 'How many sick days and personal days do I get?'" Buzza said.

Rutgers University offers training for entrepreneurs at the William G. Rohrer Center for Management & Entrepreneurship at the Rutgers School of Business on the Camden campus.

The Rutgers New Brunswick campus offers help for food entrepreneurs through the Food Entrepreneurs Network, a joint project of the Food Innovation Research and Extension Center of Rutgers and the New Jersey Food Processors Association.

Cruz, who was born in Puerto Rico, and Castillo, who was born in Peru, have built Consuelo's Travel into more than a travel agency since they started the company in 1999 in a small, $500-a-month rented office on Clifton Avenue in Lakewood. The business, whose clientele is 99 percent Spanish-speaking, is now located in a house on Third Street. The couple bought the house with the help of a mortgage for $220,000 in February 2002. They rent the second floor to other businesses.

Consuelo's Travel, which now has three employees in addition to the owners, occupies the first floor and helps clients with money transfers, immigration issues and tax returns, besides booking trips.

Revenue has grown from about $60,000 in 2000, the first full year of operation, to $140,000 last year, Castillo said.

"It wasn't easy in the beginning," Cruz said. Word-of-mouth has been the business's best marketing tool, he said. The fact that the Hispanic population has grown in Monmouth and Ocean counties in recent years has also helped, he said.

Cruz, who has a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Puerto Rico, worked for the Department of Defense, including 15 years at Fort Monmouth, and private companies before he and his wife started Consuelo's Travel. Castillo, who has a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Lima in Peru, worked for a bank and other companies.

None of those jobs offered the satisfaction that they get from running their own business, Cruz and Castillo said.

Daily Record staff writer Ellen S. Wilkowe, Gannett New Jersey Newspapers and USA Today contributed to this story.

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