CORNELIUS, N.C. -- The world of a small business owner can be a chaotic and sometimes confusing one; the path of the entrepreneur from awesome idea to actual success, fraught with obstacles.

But those hopeful travelers need not churn through the uncharted waters of the small business sea nor tread that long path toward success alone, not when they have local resources right within reach, rich with years of business experience and wisdom.

Not when a small army of seasoned business veterans is living right here and giving of its time.

SCORE one for the little guy.

Mike O'Hara, a Davidson resident, can recite on command what the SCORE acronym stands for: Service Corps of Retired Executives. It's a nation-wide, nonprofit association and partner with the Small Business Administration that's been in existence for nearly 50 years, providing confidential business counseling services free of charge.

In the same breath, however, O'Hara, a volunteer counselor with the Charlotte chapter of SCORE and one of nearly a dozen of those who work specifically with Lake Norman area clients, will also tell you that the word-for-word definition of the acronym has become a dated one.

Since its inception in 1964, the face of the more than 13,000-strong national SCORE network of small business mentors and counselors has changed. While a bit longer in the tooth than your average small business owner or entrepreneur just setting out on their journey, no longer are SCORE volunteers entirely retired. Nor are they all executives.

A quick look around the table one morning earlier this week at McAlister's Deli in Cornelius is an immediate reflection of that demographic shift. Seated with O'Hara, a veteran of the corporate world of insurance services, are Gilbert Lorenz and John Kurti — all gentlemen of a certain age but far from fully retired, and far from the archetypal buttoned-up, button-down wearing executive.

Lorenz's background is in the financial realm, but not from being on the upper floors of a bank building in some nearby, supposed banking mecca. He's a self-made man, so to speak, who started, grew and eventually sold his own successful commercial mortgage banking company.

And there's Kurti, who began his professional life in the aerospace industry, but shifted to entrepreneurial existence when he moved to Cornelius about 20 years ago. He owned several of the first Mailboxes Etc. stores in the area, then decided to semi-retire, sold the stores and became actively involved in the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, Visit Lake Norman, and as of about eight years ago, SCORE.

He now volunteers his time to offer his years of experience in retail franchises, as well as his more recently developed insight into site selection for new businesses, to clients of SCORE both in Charlotte and here in the Lake Norman region.

These three, in addition to about eight more of the nearly 70 SCORE counselors from the Charlotte chapter, are local business professionals who volunteer their time to Lake Norman area entrepreneurs on the move or small business owners in a bind.

Dog-eat-cupcake

SCORE provides a very deep pool of deeply committed volunteers willing to navigate those waters with a fellow business owner in need.

All you have to do is ask.

And that, says Lorenz, is sometimes the rub. Because SCORE is entirely volunteer and nonprofit, there's not much funding available for expensive marketing campaigns. Lorenz says SCORE counselors rely heavily on word-of-mouth and reputation to connect with a business owner whose financial plan might be floundering or a young buck with grand ideas but not even a grand in the bank to execute them. But he says they have found a reliable source of referrals from the Lake Norman Chamber.

"One of the relationships we have found very productive is that with the Chamber," Lorenz says. "They are consistently trying to find ways to help their members and the business community, and since we obviously offer a free service, it is a win-win for everybody."

And win they sometimes do.

There is a strict code of ethics among SCORE mentors to hold their counseling sessions with clients very close to the vest for obvious reasons in a very competitive, and very localized, dog-eat-dog small business universe, but O'Hara says he received permission from two local "success stories" to brag on them a bit.

The owners of Maddy's Fatty's Bakery & Café in Cornelius, Madeline Baucom and Enza Friedman, as well as Heather McLean, owner and founder of Yappy Hour Bakery in Huntersville, are just a couple examples of Lake Norman-based entrepreneurs who were able to find the right mix of business savvy and guidance for their recipes for success, thanks in part to time spent with SCORE counselors.

Lorenz is quick to emphasize the "in part" aspect of a SCORE counselors role in that success.

"One of the difficulties with success stories is that it implies a 'soup to nuts' approach," he says. "As in, we met with you and two years later you had 100 employees and were on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. When in reality, (our roles in) those success stories are small. Maybe we helped you with a marketing program or we just asked the right questions to lead you to the conclusion that maybe you should not go into the business you're thinking about."

Adds O'Hara, "Invariably, it's the energy and hard work of the entrepreneur that makes the business a success."

O'Hara says in addition to the time spent with SCORE counselors — a commitment that could range from a single visit to a years-long relationship — part of that hard work can be achieved by participating in the workshop series SCORE offers throughout the year. It's the only aspect of SCORE guidance that comes with a price tag (each one costs only $25 to attend, including materials), but O'Hara says their inherent value, as well as the free access to SCORE's bottomless pool of website resources, tools and tutorials, is priceless.

He speaks of one potential small business owner in particular who went through the entire series, or about 15 hours of intensive "starting your business" immersion. O'Hara says the man had an idea, he vetted it thoroughly through the workshop process, used the online resources to crunch the numbers, and ultimately decided not to pursue his particular business course.

Sometimes successful SCORE counseling comes in figuring out when to say no, preventing a professional (and often also personal) train wreck in the making.

"He made an informed decision to not pursue it," says O'Hara. "He new the pluses and the minuses (because of the workshops). ... Years from now if he ever wonders what might have happened, well, he actually knows what would have happened."

Just as SCORE counselors are regularly trying to spread the word about their services, they are also perpetually recruiting new volunteers to the cause. It's a significant commitment — counselors must complete a three-month orientation and can spend several volunteer hours a month providing their expertise.

But O'Hara, Lorenz and Kurti all agree that regardless of the amount of time they put into their SCORE counseling duties, the return on their investment when a business succeeds or an entrepreneur makes an informed decision to rethink their aspirations is worth it.

"I started with SCORE because I wished that I had somebody like me when I started a business for the first time," says Kurti. "I feel that it's very rewarding, the feeling that you are actually helping someone. You go through a session and at the end of it, they say, 'That was really helpful, I didn't think about that.'

"That's the satisfaction."

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SCORE volunteer counselor Steve Baune leads a roundtable discussion during the organization’s signature annual event last October. More than 100 small business owners attended, participating in workshops, learning from a panel of volunteer small business experts and more.