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September 28. 2013 1:48AM

Displaced boomers choose business over retirement


Stephen Cunningham, owner of Nashua Flight Simulator, said he spends 12-hour days running the business he started seven years ago at age 63. (MARK HAYWARD / UNION LEADER.)

MANCHESTER -- Healthy and financially stable, a growing share of New Hampshire residents are plumbing their golden years for gold - businesses they hope will keep them occupied and, perhaps, generate some money to their retirement accounts.

Some say they want a small business that keeps them occupied once they stop punching the time clock. Others nurture dreams of IPOs and courtships by venture capitalists. Others have been out of the workforce for years, returned to the corporate world and find it offers little.

"I'm almost 52," said Catherine, an Amherst woman who didn't want her last name used for fear of alienating her former employer - a community mental health agency - that she may end up doing business with.

"I don't want to go to work and make $25,000 a year and two weeks vacation. If I'm not going to make a lot of money, I'm going to not make a lot of money on my own terms," she said.

The interest was evident last week, when 90 people showed up at Southern New Hampshire University for an "Encore Entrepreneur Forum" held by several organizations that promote business startups. Prior sessions drew only a couple of dozen people, said Hugh A. Curley, a business development specialist with one of the sponsors, the Small Business Administration.

Curley pointed to a recent survey by the AARP, which showed that only 13 percent of New Hampshire residents 50 years or older plan to never return to work once they hit retirement age.

The AARP also found that 12 percent of its younger New Hampshire members - those aged 50 to 59 - are interested in starting their own business.

They could take inspiration from Stephen Cunningham. A former chief executive officer of Boys and Girls Clubs in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, he bought a used flight simulator and launched Nashua Flight Simulator at the Nashua Airport in June 2006.

The hobby pilot added another simulator two years later and targeted pilots whose insurance companies required minimum levels of training, including flight-simulator training.

Soon, he plans to soon add two more simulators, which run about $100,000 apiece, and expects to hit the $1 million annual sales mark in three years.

"My wife said she's never seen me this happy," said Cunningham, who puts in 12-hour days at the age of 70. "The era in this country of 35 years in the salt mine and two years of fishing and golfing before packing it in is dying," he said.

Now he talks about putting freelance instructors on his payroll, a new marketing plan and unconventional paths for financing.

"I want to feel fulfilled at the end of the day. I want to make my mark before I go out," said Cunningham, who acknowledges he doesn't take a salary, but the work pays for his hobby flying.

Such success lurks in the back of the mind of Lincoln residents Robert and Monica Haley. He is a hospital X-ray technician; she is a per-diem nurse. They are approaching retirement age and said the North Country needs a transportation network for elderly and others who can't drive.

"Down the pike, you always want to change, you always want to grow," Monica said. Although she said she doesn't need to make "large volumes of money," Robert didn't rule that out. "It depends how it goes. If you decide to do something and it takes off?"

Those with entrepreneurial flames sparked by gray hairs will find all sorts of agencies to nurture that desire.

They include the SBA, which gives counseling and runs a loan program that can provide up to $5 million for qualified businesses.

SCORE links retired business executives with startups. And the Center for Women's Business Advancement gives seminars on topics such as marketing and government contracting.

Wilton resident Diana Hargrove is impressed with the resources available.

Her youngest son is in high school, and she's spent the last two years volunteering. She plans to attend several workshops while nurturing an idea of building an errand service for the elderly.

"The thing about starting your own business, I'm a coward, and it takes a lot of courage," she said.

Cunningham said age brings a lot of positives for the entrepreneur: confidence, wisdom, experience. Still, there was some fear when he started his business, and his last expansion took place in 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession.

"There was some anxiety. It's a tough business," he said.

Randy Roody, a volunteer in the Merrimack Valley chapter of SCORE, cautioned that it's not all magic for seniors-turned-entrepreneurs. Business failure rates are high for both young and old entrepreneurs.

And a mid-life crisis can sometimes push a first-time entrepreneur too far.

He's working with a successful businessman who has financed a struggling restaurant for a brother. "His ego's taking a hit," Roody said.

"We try to make sure they don't go too fast," he said, "save their money until they're sure they can make a go of it. A lot don't realize how much hard work it is."

mhayward@unionleader.com