Business ventures, nonprofits look to Westmoreland County SCORE counselors
Ann Dittmar knew she wanted to start her own business six years ago, but was unsure if her business plan was good enough to help her get loans from the bank.
“When you start a business, you know your product, but the business end of it is such a mystery,” she said.
On a friend's recommendation, she consulted with a member of Westmoreland County SCORE, the Latrobe-based chapter of a nationwide nonprofit organization that offers free consulting and mentoring services to small businesses.
Now six years later, she's the head of Dittmar Counseling Services LLC in Unity and employs three therapists, a psychiatrist and a nurse practitioner to provide mental health counseling and medicine management.
“Opening up my own office has been a dream of mine since grad school,” Dittmar said. “They really, really helped me achieve my dreams.”
Westmoreland County SCORE is based at the McKenna School of Business at St. Vincent College. Originally the name was an acronym for Service Corps of Retired Executives, said Chairman Jerry Stalnaker, 77, of Ligonier Township, who has volunteered with the group for 15 years.
“This was kind of following up on the success of the Peace Corps,” Stalnaker said of the group, which is under the direction of the Small Business Administration, though each chapter is autonomous.
About 40 members in the Westmoreland chapter can counsel leaders of nonprofit organizations and for-profit businesses in areas such as accounting and marketing.
Each client must write a business plan for review and can meet with counselors only once or twice, but can stay in touch for as long as needed, Stalnaker said.
“This advice can be tailored to a particular issue the client has,” he said.
Member Don Rohac, 81, of Hempfield has counseled for about 10 years after a career in industrial sales. He heard about SCORE at a Jeannette Rotary Club meeting.
“I try to keep the gray matter between the ears busy,” he said. “I enjoy doing things in the community.”
Closing the deal
About a year ago, Rohac started working with Heather Gockel of Penn Township.
She managed five stores for Regis Salons as a district leader, but wanted to open her own shop after 15 years as a cosmetologist with six years of experience in teaching at Empire Beauty Schools in Monroeville, West Mifflin and the North Hills.
The owner of what is now Vintage Salon and Spa, she saw an available building near her home and wanted some advice on the sale.
“I drove past this salon for four months before it was for sale and said to my husband, ‘That salon was so cute,' ” Gockel said.
After working with Rohac and fellow SCORE member Sam Dixson, Gockel researched the prices of the equipment for sale with the building, then used that figure to make an offer — half of the original asking price — and the former owner closed the deal.
“She put it all together, and she did it, and she's doing excellent,” Rohac said.
Gockel has paid off her loan from the bank and has five employees. Her five-year goal is to renovate the building and expand to another salon.
“We've done a lot in a short amount of time,” she said, adding that Rohac visits once a month for a haircut. “He's always like, ‘You just don't stop, do you?' ”
Rohac said that in other cases he counsels, some SCORE clients have a bitter pill to swallow.
“We've probably helped other people save some money by telling people this is not the time and the place to enter the market for what you want to do,” he said, citing one example of a man hoping to manufacture, market and sell an automobile cleaning product all by himself. “He had a great idea. I'm sure it was a great product. It was just too much.”
In other cases, a family-owned business might seek a third-party opinion, like Grandma's Country Oven Bake Shoppe in Penn Township.
Kathy Young started baking at an early age, then sold some of her goods at her family's Schramm Farms and Orchards until 1991 when she and her husband moved the business next door.
Their daughter, Jennifer Matrison, suggested the place needed an update, so the family started working with SCORE in 2011, Bill Young said.
“She pushed us. We were kind of stale, and she wanted to take it to another level,” he recalled.
Stalnaker called the process a “makeover” after a walk-through of the store.
“We helped them think about it and think it through,” he said.
Now the store has been completely rearranged with new lighting, flooring, countertops and display cases, completed in 2012.
“It's a totally different storefront now,” Bill Young said. “People come in and say, ‘I can't believe it's the same space. It's so much bigger.' ”
After the changes, the 14-employee business had 20 percent sales growth in 2012, 20 percent more in 2013 and 9 percent over that in 2014, even with a bridge out nearby, Young said.
“I have no regrets at all, no negative experiences about the whole thing. ... These guys are there to help,” he said. “They're all very well-versed in business.”
The group meets monthly and is always looking for clients as well as volunteers, who are assigned cases as they are received. About 90 percent of cases are in Westmoreland County; the others come from Cambria, Somerset, Allegheny and Indiana counties, said Stalnaker, who retired from Timken Steel in Latrobe.
The information is kept confidential between the clients and counselors.
“The advice can be tailored to the particular issue the client has,” he noted.
Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or email@example.com.