News Column

Boom Times for 'Boomerpreneurs'

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"When you've lost everything, you realize that it's important to do what you want to do," said Gary Bodley.

Next to him, on a zebra-print love seat near a set of turquoise tables, his wife, Lili Batista, nods her head.

"What we thought was the worst thing in the world ended up being the best thing," she said.

Bodley and Batista are proudly showing off The Painted Ox, the re-purposed furniture shop they opened in West Palm Beach in April with a friend, Trisha Pitts.

The shop brims with colorfully re-imagined vintage furniture. If Katy Perry married the ghost of Elvis, they'd shop here.

The store is one of two new comeback businesses that Bodley and Batista started after the recession body-slammed them into a financial sinkhole. They lost $8 million in investment property as well as Bodley's real estate appraisal firm to the housing market meltdown.

Starting over, they decided to create businesses doing what they loved: interior design for Batista, 58; home renovation for Bodley, 50.

A real estate broker, Bodley started a company with partners, to buy and rehab houses. He's sold five so far "and has six in the pipeline," he said.

Unable to find new jobs, recession-bruised "Boomerpreneurs" like Bodley and Batista are creating their own.

That stereotype of a 21st century entrepreneur as a swashbuckling 20-something hipster with a hoodie? Swap it for an image of a boomer in relaxed-fit Dockers reaching for reading glasses.

Boomers started nearly half of all new U.S. businesses last year, according to the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, which tracks entrepreneurship.

The rate of business creation by older workers prompted Kauffman researcher Dane Stangler to say the country is in the midst of an "entrepreneurship boom -- not in spite of an aging population but because of it."

Older boomers from 55-to 64 created 21 percent of new companies last year, up from 14 percent in 1996, according to the Kauffman Foundation. Those slightly younger, from 45-to-54, added another 28 percent.

Locked out of the job market with an unemployment rate for those 55 and older twice what it was before the recession, boomers are choosing between the reduced pensions and benefits of forced early retirement or going out on their own.

Others who don't need additional income are finding there's not enough golf in the world to keep from being bored in retirement. They miss feeling productive and valued.

"We still have this antiquated notion that when you reach a certain age, you're out of the game and on the shelf," said Bill Zinke, president of the Center for Productive Longevity, an advocacy group for older workers. "People who remain productive and engaged live longer, have greater health and better satisfaction in life."

Self-employment rises as workers get older and more experienced, according to Harvard economist Edward Glaeser. Writing in the New York Times last year, he praised West Palm Beach as an entrepreneurial hot spot stemming from retirees' high rate of self-employment. (Other economists give the entrepreneurial crown to several cities in California.)

Glaeser wrote, "...our image of 70-year-olds needs to change from Florida retirees to Florida entrepreneurs, who find ways to make a bit of cash doing something a bit more fun than their former work."

Nationally, about 30 percent of self-employed workers in this country are 55 or older. Local statistics aren't broken down by age group, but according to the Census Bureau, 10.3 percent of Palm Beach County households were self-employed.

Economists say entrepreneurism typically rises during recessions, due in part to lower start-up costs and an abundance of available workers. What's new this time around is the number of people starting businesses at the age when their parents were eyeing retirement homes.

Roy Assad, a West Palm Beach executive coach (and new board chairman of the city's Downtown Development Authority), believes it's never too late to follow a dream.

"For anybody in their 50s, if they're ever going to launch something, this is the time. You have the experience, credibility, credit history, risk tolerance and patience to support an entrepreneurial venture," Assad said.

Assad said a large number of the more than a thousand clients he's coached have been older executives looking for a more fulfilling work life before it's too late.

"People hear of lay-offs and think, 'That could be me'," said Assad. "Those that have always wanted to start a business are thinking, 'If I don't do it now, when am I going to do it?'"

Some older entrepreneurs were pushed out of corporate life, others jumped.

Lenore Pinello of Jupiter was pushed, and will be forever grateful.

Down-sized from a publishing job at age 50, Lenore vowed never to return to the corporate world, but felt too young to retire. She still wanted a paycheck.

Her husband, Charlie, had a new business. Perhaps she could start one too?

"If I was going to succeed, it was going to be for me," she said.

Always a talented cook who loved hosting dinner parties, Pinello, now 55, leaned on those skills to open In the Kitchen, a Tequesta kitchen shop, cooking school and catering business.

In her shop is a sign that describes her new found pleasure in doing something she adores while being the "boss of me."

"My Happy Place," it reads.

Then, there are perks not found in the corporate world. This summer, she did a cooking demonstration on a European river barge in exchange for a free trip between Amsterdam and Paris.

At the end of the day, her work gives her satisfaction her publishing job never could. "When you put a meal in front of people and they applaud, well, I could do that every night of the week," she said.

By desire or need, working is becoming the new retirement.

In a 2010 survey, 27 percent of people turning 65 told the AARP that they would retire between 66 and 69. Even more -- 29 percent -- said they'd stay in the work place until 70 or older, preferably working for themselves.

As Americans' lifespans have increased nearly 20 years, people in their 50s, 60s and even 70s are healthier and more energetic than previous generations. Yet, since Social Security was enacted in 1935, the retirement age has crept up just one year, a marker Charlie Pinello is ignoring.

Now a "young 68," he found retirement isolating and boring.

"Everyone was ancient. I don't play golf and I can't drink all day, " said the former Long Island fireman, insurance salesman and gas station owner. "And I'm too antsy to sit around."

On a lark, he started selling boats, then bought the brokerage. He re-named it Jupiter Inlet Boats and moved the business to Tequesta. His brother started a companion boat rental business.

Sales are still slow in a moribund economy, but it gives him time to take lunch breaks at the beach with Sophia, his golden retriever.

"I work hard and I goof off hard," he said. "When I stop working, I'll probably drop dead."

Bill Zinke, of the Center for Productivity, who is 81, wants to see the workplace make room for older workers' experience and talent.

After all, he says, "When you're over the hill, you pick up speed going down the other side."

Baby boomer entrepreneurs can find help at:

Center for Productive Longevity at www.ctrpl.org

Small Business Adminstration's 50-Plus Entrepreneur at www.sba.gov/50plusentrepreneur

THE RISE OF THE 'BOOMERPRENEUR'

-- 49 percent of new businesses were started by Baby Boomers in 2011

-- 21 percent by 55-to-64-year olds.

-- 28 percent by 45-to-54-year olds.

Source: The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation