50-plus Canadians show entrepreneurial flair

For over 30 years, John Wiggins carved out a successful Toronto-based business in the rough and tumble world of advertising. However, by the time he reached his early 50s, he was running on empty.

“When you’re doing a couple of 48-hour days – if not a half-dozen – in an average month, you get a little older. It sometimes wears on you. And that was before the days of Internet and even faxes,” Wiggins points out. He adds, “I was at a stage where I was suffering from arthritis quite badly. I was running back and forth between Toronto and our home in Creemore [about 100 kilometres northwest of Toronto], and the tension helped aggravate the disease. I felt I should get a little stress out of my life.”

So he parcelled off most of his clients to other agencies and headed home for a slower pace. But it became an interlude and didn’t last long.

“I still liked the idea of income and I didn’t see sitting in a bloody rocking chair in my late 50s,” says Wiggins.

So Wiggins, then 54, started what turned out to be a two-year planning project, which eventually resulted in the establishment of a premier microbrewery. Wiggin wrote a business plan, attracted investors and brought on one of the big five chartered banks.

“I started off by saying this world does not need another beer – this world needs a better beer – hoping like hell there was a market that would relate to that,” said Wiggins, who also sold some real estate holdings to fund the new company.

Creemore Springs Brewery opened in 1987. The product was praised by beer experts and served in fine restaurants. When he reached 70, he sold out to his other partners, who subsequently sold out to Molsons several years later.

Wiggins is part of the growing 50-plus demographic who are embracing the entrepreneurial spirit. According to a 2001 Statistics Canada study, workers 65 and over were almost four times more likely than those aged 15 to 64 to be their own boss. The proportion of working seniors who were self-employed rises with age – from 40 per cent of 65- to 69-year-olds to 54 per cent of those aged 75 and over.

“Most people are increasingly doing it out of choice … to have a balanced life,” says University of Toronto economics professor and author David Foot. “To go golfing when they want to go golfing; to work when they want to work.”

The right time in life
“Self employment is very stressful when you are in your 30s and 40s because you’ve got to pay off mortgage, raise kids. Self-employment isn’t so stressful when you’ve paid off the mortgage and you’ve got financial freedom. It’s actually liberating,” says Foot.

It certainly was for Greg Peterson of Oakville, Ont. After 25 years in sales and general management, Peterson had had enough of working for others so he set up his own corporate consultancy for small businesses called Growth Advisors.

“I felt that I had worked for other companies enough. I had done well in my career but I was really looking for more flexibility. Semi-retirement maybe the best way to describe it … I didn’t really want to work for anyone,” says Peterson.

And his timing was right. His kids had grown up, and he and his wife had built up substantial savings and, at this point in their lives, enjoyed a high net worth.

“We knew we weren’t going to starve. We had resources that we could draw upon if necessary,” says Peterson.

And, of course, CARP, Canada’s Association for the 50-Plus, began in much the same way. Back in 1983, Murray Morgenthau was winding up his mortgage brokerage business when wife, Lillian, called and suggested they start a national organization to be the voice of seniors. CARP started with 10 friends and family members around a kitchen table. Twenty-three years later – with the Morgenthaus still at the helm – CARP’s 400,000 members make it the main lobby group for 50-plus Canadians.

Are you cut out for the job?
Heading into entrepreneurship in one’s 50s or later begs self-reflection and soul searching. There must be a keen sense of mission to ensure success. It’s not something that works for everybody.

“You’ve got to know yourself. What is your tolerance for risk? What is your tolerance for getting back to work?” asks time management consultant and author Steve Prentice. “It’s a real change to become your own boss [and make sure the income arrives].”

Wiggins found in both his advertising business and his brewery that economic sobriety is crucial.

“Don’t go out there in dreamland and create the best success story because it ain’t going to happen. Do your bloody homework and make sure you’re well financed. Whatever you guess it’s going to be, just double it,” says Wiggins.

Show me the money
As a self-employed business consultant, Greg Peterson understands the implications of insufficient capital. “I know some people who have gone into similar things that I’ve done. They were younger and had kids at home and didn’t have enough money to see them thorough,” says Peterson.

Peterson also says that selecting the right business is crucial. “The first thing I would say is to do something that you are passionate about. If you are doing something as a hobby or job, you won’t like it,” says Peterson.

Know your limits
And don’t try to do it all. Know what you’re able to do on your own. If skilled workers are required, bring them in. John Wiggins believes his best decision was having a consultant read through his business plan. The consultant was so impressed he invested in the brewery.

An alternative to starting your own business is buying a franchise. In fact, some franchises can be purchased on a fixed-term basis, an ideal option for those over 50 looking for an entrepreneurial opportunity.

“An increasing number of mature Canadians or those nearing retirement have purchased a franchise as a means to help them wind down their careers,” says franchise and intellectual property lawyer Joseph Adler of the Toronto-based firm Hoffer Adler LLP. “Franchising also provides investors with an opportunity to work independently but under the watchful eyes and guidance of skillful franchisors … A solid franchise could give mature Canadians a turn-key business which would otherwise take years to develop.”

Back in Creemore, just four years after selling his brewery, John Wiggins is not just hanging around. He has been breeding jumping horses and selling up to four a year for $30,000 to $40,000 each. And he’s also found a reason to get back into manufacturing.

Wiggins, now 74, has designed a heated water bowl for horses, which will hit production in 2006. But this time around, the senior entrepreneur is taking a more passive role.

“I’m just sort of steering it along; getting it underway; keep an overview on it; make sure it’s running properly. I’m spending some time with the wife hopefully and improving my golf game.”