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Older entrepreneurs call shots after long careers

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(AP photo)
Tony Uzzi, Owner and General Manager of Nurse Next Door, Mission Viejo, poses for a picture in his car in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013. After 30 years in traditional jobs, Uzzi, 52, accepted a buyout from a pharmaceutical company and went into business for himself. Now, instead of having a fairly predictable schedule as a pharmaceutical salesman, work can interrupt just about anything , even dinners out. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

NEW YORK – Calling the shots isn't always all it's cracked up to be. But for people above 50, it's become a more popular choice.

Tony Uzzi knows all about that. After 30 years in traditional jobs, at age 52, he accepted a buyout from a pharmaceutical company and went into business for himself. Now, instead of having a fairly predictable schedule as a pharmaceutical salesman, work can interrupt just about anything — even dinners out.

On one occasion, Uzzi was sitting in a restaurant with his wife and their bottle of wine was being uncorked. The next minute, he was dashing off to make sure an elderly client of his Nurse Next Door senior care franchise was OK.

"It's 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Uzzi says. "It's a challenge."

For most Americans, exiting the rat race to start their own business is a passing thought. And then, as people get older, building a pension or a 401(k) plan with an employer match is too comfortable to let go. During the Great Recession and its aftermath, however, the number of people over 50 who started their own companies grew. Often it was because of the stiff job market. Sometimes family or personal circumstances necessitated a change to something more flexible. Almost always, running a business after decades of working for someone else, is turning out to be an adjustment.

Uzzi's Nurse Next Door franchise is the second business he started after taking the buyout in 2010. Uzzi first launched an executive coaching business that drew on his experience as a manager. But he was bored and not making the money he wanted. He began looking for a franchise and settled on Nurse Next Door because of his background in health care.

Interruptions aren't the only challenge he encounters. Running the franchise comes with a myriad of duties: Drumming up sales and hiring among them.

"The constant drive to get clients, the constant sales calls. It's finding good caregivers," says, Uzzi who runs the franchise in Orange County, Calif. He is continually looking for new contacts — local attorneys and churches, for example — who can refer clients to him. He has 15 clients, and is hoping for more.

Many people over 50 are making the same adjustments as Uzzi. Research by the Kauffman Foundation, which studies trends in entrepreneurship, shows that more people ages 55 to 64 turned to business ownership during and after the Great Recession. The foundation's index of entrepreneurial activity among people in that age group rose from 2007 to 2009 and logged a scant decline in 2010.

Some older entrepreneurs keep working in the industry where they've spent their entire careers. That was a big confidence booster for Lori Ames, who started her public relations company, The PR Freelancer, in 2010.

"Being 53 and having enough work and life experience made me go into this in a smart way," says Ames, who launched her business after her 22-year-old son was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. She decided that running her own company would give her the flexibility to care for her son and allow her to work near her Babylon, N.Y. home.

She wasn't worried about getting clients after having done book publicity and other public relations in Manhattan for more than 20 years. What was daunting was the prospect of becoming an employer for the first time. Ames' business grew so much that nine months after she started the company she was able to hire the first of her two staffers. That was great news, but the responsibility that comes with being responsible for someone else's salary was stressful.

"That was more nerve wracking than starting a business," she says.

A lot of older entrepreneurs turn to franchises. They appeal to them because they can start making money sooner than they would by building a company from the ground up. Another benefit: franchises come with a ready-made business and marketing plan — and often a well-known name like Subway— the popular sandwich shops— or Lawn Doctor lawn-care businesses. Uzzi, the Nurse Next Door franchisee spent $100,000 to buy and set up his franchise, a far cry he says from what it would take to establish a new business. "I didn't have $20 million to dump into establishing a brand," Uzzi says.

The Nurse Next Door company notes that it is attracting older franchisees. In the last six to nine months, the average age of new Nurse Next Door franchisees is 56, up from 45. CEO John DeHart says the company is getting more inquiries from older prospective franchisees than in the past.

When Mark Whitworth lost his job two years ago at the age of 50, he didn't plan to become a business owner. But the job market for accountants was dicey and looked like it would stay that way.

So Whitworth opened a carpet and upholstery cleaning franchise last September. He works six days a week and isn't turning a profit yet, but he's enjoying the autonomy that comes with running a company.

"It really does feel good to be the one to make the decisions and deciding the direction your business goes in," says Whitworth, who owns a Neighborhood Chem-Dry franchise in Dallas.

He's optimistic the business will start making money as he gets more customers.

"You have to be patient and build up a reputation," he says.

Starting a company while still working for someone else is another route. William Ryan has a job as a salesman for a consumer products company in the Boston area. But last month, at the age of 52, he also opened a franchise — a Lapels dry cleaning business. His goal is to help pay for college for his two children. He's also concerned about the job market.

"I have a friend who's worked for a company for 30 years and just got a layoff notice," he says. "I'm doing this as a safety net and as a financial security blanket."

Ryan works on the business before and after his regular job. He's in the store on weekends. During the week, it's staffed by two part-time workers.

Owning a company for the first time has a learning curve. Ryan is dealing with payroll, insurance and other aspects of running a business. The process of opening the store required a lot of paperwork.

"I bet I've gone through 300 pieces of paper just setting things up," he says.

But the work that goes into running his own business is worth it, he says.

"I've got that fire in me," Ryan says. "This is something I always wanted to do."

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