They shoot, they SCORE

Retired executives help turn small business dreams into reality
Apr. 20, 2013 @ 03:00 PM

Nancy Mahoney and Mark Snyder had an idea. It was just a question of how to make it happen.
They knew they wanted to start their own railroad business. They had experience, having each worked for a large railroad company. And they had skin in the game, putting up about $50,000 of their own cash to get the venture started. Still, they thought they might need a loan to get things off the ground.
In the summer of 2010, they stumbled upon the Service Corps of Retired Executives, or SCORE. After visiting the SCORE office at the High Point Chamber of Commerce, the business partners were well on their way.
Mahoney said SCORE helped her get all the information together needed to apply for a loan and brought in a retired banker for a mock loan application pitch.
“We knew nothing about running our own business,” Mahoney said. “It’s hard to get someone to loan money based on a bunch of projections.”
Dirtworks/Rail of the Carolinas was born from those initial meetings.
The Lexington-based company turned its initial investment into revenues that reached more than $1 million last year. The company is growing, landing jobs all over the Southeast that entail new railroad construction, track rehabilitation and maintenance work, track inspections, railroad crossing work and various jobs for businesses that are served by rail lines.
Mahoney said SCORE was vital in offering realistic advice and asking the hard questions about balance-sheet projections, market share and other details of starting a business.
“Without their help, I don’t think we would have been as successful as we were,” she said. “There was just an unlimited amount of resources they offered us.”
Mal O’Connell said Dirtworks is a prime example of a SCORE success story, but he wished more people would take advantage of the help the organization has to offer.
A retired technology executive, O’Connell started volunteering with SCORE’s High Point branch about five years ago. The program is sponsored by the U.S. Small Business Administration, but it’s primarily a volunteer enterprise.
“I think our budget in High Point is like $1,200 a year — basically postage and phone bills,” said O’Connell.
When he started, there were about 20 active members, but that number has dwindled to around eight, and the branch has merged with its counterpart in Greensboro.
“We need more volunteers to come and do this,” he said, stressing that the local branch is still able to meet demand from the would-be entrepreneurs, with plenty of resources in person and online to draw upon.
“Nothing goes undone,” he said. “We don’t turn anybody away.”
O’Connell, 66, said SCORE tries to offer realistic guidance about whether a business plan will work. Its services are free and available not just to start-ups but to existing small businesses as well. Sometimes, discouraging an ill-conceived idea from going forward is a success in its own right. He said many ventures often boil down to finances.
“They come in, they want to open a restaurant because they love to cook, and they have no money. And they’ve got a credit score in the 600s,” he said.
Lenders want to see “two years of experience and a good credit score and 20 to 30 percent of their money going in,” he said. “They have to have some skin in the game. We get a lot of people that come in and say they want open this business, how can I get a grant? I say, ‘If you’re going to come up with a cure for cancer, you can get a grant, but you can’t get a grant to open up a restaurant.’”
Mahoney said her company just completed a project to build a track for an ethanol facility in Denton and is getting ready to start a multi-million dollar job in Georgia.
“We’ve been very, very fortunate. We know the industry. We know what needs to be done. There’s not a lot of competition in this field. Everyone is becoming more pro-rail, so luckily, work has been picking up left and right,” she said.
O’Connell said Mahoney’s story can be an inspiration to others who want to start or grow a business.
“They’ll work with you until you feel comfortable,” Mahoney said. “I just don’t think a lot of people realize they’re there.”