By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
EVEN BANKS SAID NO WHENSean Pregibon went looking for a loan to start a sports bar and restaurant featuring local athletes.
One bank said yes and set the 30-year-old Youngstown native's dream in motion.
Now Pregibon's business, The Youngstown Sports Grille, is about to celebrate its two-year anniversary in the Boardman Plaza on Boardman-Canfield Road.
The family-oriented eatery is drawing crowds on weekends -- a 20-minute wait on a recent Friday night was a positive sign. His staff, just six when the eatery opened, has grown to 22 full- and part-time.
But Pregibon admits his idea might never have made it past the dream stage without the help of a group of business veterans he met along the way, volunteers with the Service Corps of Retired Executives.
"I can't give them enough credit," he said.
"They just held my hand and showed me what I had to do, how to sell the concept and sell myself. Now, I work even harder because I don't want to disappoint them."
Charles H. Whitman, 76, a one-time grocer and retired YSU director of career services, is chairman of SCORE's Youngstown Chapter, based at Youngstown State University.
He is one of 35 retired executives from a variety of business backgrounds who take turns meeting with would-be entrepreneurs at the group's offices in YSU's Williamson Hall. The local branch is celebrating its 39th anniversary this year.
"You put us all together and you've got thousands of years of experience," Whitman said with a grin.
Their advice is free, confidential and available to business owners and entrepreneurs in Mahoning, Trumbull, Columbiana and Ashtabula counties in Ohio and Mercer and Lawrence counties in Pennsylvania.
SCORE advisers get calls every day from people interested in starting a business or buying into a franchise, as well as from business owners who want to expand or are facing financial problems.
The retired executives use a team approach, said Janet Sanders, 63, a former SCORE chairwoman and retired Youngstown City Schools elementary school principal. They generally meet with two prospective business owners a day and average more than 100 meetings in a year.
Many enthusiastic prospects lose interest quickly, however, when they find out how much work goes into a business start-up.
While many skills are transferable, Sanders said, advisers recommend that entrepreneurs have some experience in the business they want to start.
"They'll come in and say they want to open a restaurant, and the only experience they have in the restaurant business is that they like to eat out!," she said, laughing.
Pregibon had the requisite experience because he'd worked in restaurants through high school and college.
A YSU graduate with a degree in accounting and work experience as a financial adviser and assistant to the Mahoning County Auditor, he also had useful educational and financial experience.
But academic degrees are not a universal requirement for business success, Sanders and Whitman agreed.
They mentioned Shelley Criswell, owner of A La Cart Catering in Canfield and another SCORE success story. She never studied business but had plenty of waitressing experience and the desire to be in business for herself.
Criswell started small in 1996 by buying a catering business at a golf course, then expanded into her current location on Lisbon Street.
Criswell said her business has nearly doubled since she moved, and A La Cart Catering is booking into 2006. She still remembers how nervous she was when she first met with a group of SCORE advisers nine years ago.
"They ask a lot of questions, and it makes you a little nervous, but it's because they don't want you to fail," she said.
Not that easy
A common misconception, said Whitman, is the notion that new businesses can easily get start-up cash from banks and government agencies.
"Some people call up and say they want $5,000 and can you send a check," Sanders added, shaking her head.
There is little or no "free money" out there, she said. Banks will lend money, but they expect the borrower to have some collateral and a business plan that spells out how the loan will be paid back.
SCORE advisers don't tell prospective business owners to give up, Whitman said, but they try to point out the steps that need to be taken and all the possible obstacles.
Those who persevere and keep coming back are the ones most likely to succeed. "We have a lot of quantity, but many are lacking quality," he said. "The key is to be a self-starter."