You might think a 79-year-old retired Boynton Beach, Fla., resident would spend his days walking along the beach, playing nine holes of golf, or watching “Jeopardy.” But for a serial entrepreneur, business life does not stop at 65.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 1.7 percent of individuals 65 years and older start a business, but many more buy or continue to operate enterprises.
“It’s extremely rare for people to start their own companies when they’re older,” said William Dennis, a senior research fellow at the National Federation of Independent Business based in Washington, D.C. “There’s a lot of gray hair in companies, but it tends to be 50-ish gray hair, not 70- or 80-year-old gray hair.”
For some older entrepreneurs like Robert Rod, the president of Enviroman, the Internet prompted him to open a new online business that generates $10,000 a month in sales. Other older Americans maintain an active role in the family business, or start a new one from scratch.
“I don’t want to be a retiree like the ones I’m surrounded with here in Florida,” said Rod, the 79-year-old founder of Enviroman, which sells natural pesticide products. Using a Web site and his personal computer, Rod distributes a dog repellent called Repel II and a bug-killing version called Bugs R Done.
“Because I can sell directly from my computer, it’s possible for a guy like me to work in this industry,” said Rod, who, while his hair may be gray, has a mind very much in tune with what today’s consumers want.
“I perceived the need for safer products,” said Rod. “People want safer things in their homes.”
Rod’s products rely on an extract called d’limonene. Made from orange peels, the substance naturally stops insects from eating orange trees. Rod’s insecticides, which rely on natural ingredients rather than harsh chemicals, are sold in stores and via his new Web site (www.safeinsecticide.com).
Making Dreams Reality
Dreaming up new products is what Rod has done his entire working life. In the past, Rod, who has a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from the University of Southern California, developed missile products, toilet bowls for airplanes, and founded a company to sell a line of ultrasonic cleaners he invented.
While some older entrepreneurs are technically savvy, others can’t operate more than an adding machine. But that’s OK. Ruby L. Wyatt, an 84-year-old supermarket owner in Falmouth, Ky., has maintained her store since 1945, when it was housed inside a truck with shelves.
Through the years, Wyatt’s Supervalu has gone through five additions , eventually, moving to an actual building. In 1997, she almost lost it all when a flood deluged the aisles with 7 feet of water.
“I could have closed the store after that,” said Wyatt, “but I had 50 employees whose homes were either ruined or destroyed, and I couldn’t just say I’m finished.”
The flood ruined the store’s computers, scanners and refrigerators. Seven-thousand customers had to go elsewhere to buy food, but only temporarily. Determined to reopen quickly, Wyatt managed to have the store rebuilt in 66 days.
Today, Wyatt’s family-run business competes with giant competitors like Wal-Mart and Myers, stores selling “everything on the face of the earth,” according to Wyatt. But she believes her experience and longevity are keys to her continued business success.
“When you’ve lived through the Great Depression, you know the value of a penny,” said Wyatt. “I fight back by having a higher-quality store. Our people are friendly, and we serve a complete dinner meal for $2.79 , you can’t beat that.”
Meeting The Challenge
Because working beats sitting around, some older entrepreneurs are in business just because they love a challenge.
“When I get up in the morning, I don’t think about how old I am,” said 78-year-old Bill Jones, owner of Dyna Motors Inc., a Cleveland-based company that provides electronic controls for industrial motors. “I think, ‘I’m going to do what’s fun.'”
With two full-time employees, two consultants and “zero customers,” his new company is a real start-up venture for Jones, a true serial entrepreneur.
“I’ve recognized something with potential, I have a belief in it, and now, I’m trying to visualize the business plan,” said Jones, who doesn’t have to work since he sold his last company, Cleveland Machine Controls, for $75 million.
Not used to sitting around, he became interested in a local inventor’s idea for an industrial motor.
“When I sold Cleveland Machine Controls, I found out the new owners didn’t want to put money in the motor, so I took the initiative and bought into it,” said Jones, who sees great potential in the product.
“From an economic standpoint, we could be supplying a wide range of motors to a lot of different industries,” said Jones. “I’m investing in new technology.”
If this third business is not successful, Jones says he’ll be willing to let it go.
“I’ve had a 32-year run being an entrepreneur,” said Jones. “I don’t intend to make this a full-time job.”
When asked when he may retire completely, Jones said it would be a while. “I’m not that good a golfer yet.”
Briefly … Don’t forget to enter this year’s “Best and Worst Business Card in America” contest. Just send two copies of your business card to: Business Card Contest, P.O. Box 768, Pelham, N.Y. 10803. Deadline for entries is Jan. 31. Some of this year’s prizes will be provided by iPrint.com.
Reporting by Julieanne Neal. Applegate is a syndicated columnist and author.