Looking out the big windows at the main office of the local chapter of SCORE, you see an expanse of green growth on the fairways of El Rio Golf Course.

It's a fitting view, considering SCORE's mission - free counseling to help small-business owners grow a different kind of green.

Last year, SCORE's Southern Arizona chapter moved its main headquarters to the old El Rio pro shop on West Speedway near Silverbell Road.

The business counseling group - originally known as the Service Corps of Retired Executives - is also on the move program-wise, with new emphasis on helping existing businesses expand and create jobs.

"We're all about creating jobs - we want to work with people who can create jobs," local chapter president Charlie Higgins said.

SCORE offers free, confidential, one-on-one counseling as well as workshops and seminars. The group uses an all-volunteer staff and covers operating expenses with funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration, donations and event fees.

The Southern Arizona chapter has counseling sites in Tucson, Marana, Oro Valley, Vail, Green Valley, Sahuarita and Sierra Vista. In the past year, the group has served nearly 3,000 people with counseling and workshops, seminars and round-table events, and has held nearly 1,200 hours of counseling sessions in the past year to date.

Higgins, 67, is retired from chemicals giant DuPont, where he worked all over the world in marketing, manufacturing, finance and planning before retiring in 2003.

Besides serving as chapter president and board member, Higgins is one of about 25 volunteer counselors. A dozen other SCORE members specialize in specific agency functions like marketing and membership.

The average age of the local chapter is 62. Members range in age from 38 to 82, and a quarter of them are women, Higgins said.

"We've been fairly ambitious on what we've done in the last year, and it's really yielded some pretty good results," said Higgins, who himself has 83 counseling clients.

The local SCORE chapter is preparing to launch two programs for existing businesses in the next three months, "Simple steps to grow your business," and "E-commerce Now."

The group also has set up special "S.W.A.T." teams, groups of three or four members who go to a business facing imminent issues and help sort out solutions.

Taking his own advice, Higgins is determined to run the SCORE chapter like a business, charting the group's performance, including "touches," or contacts in relation to new business licenses.

"We're doing better in most areas and where we aren't, we have programs to bring them up," he said.

SCORE has had its ups and downs in Tucson since the first chapter was formed here in the mid-1960s, when SCORE was launched nationwide.

In 1993, the Tucson office won a SCORE chapter-of-the-year award for its performance. But in 2005, the local program was abruptly deactivated by the national headquarters amid criticism of its programs and management. Local leaders at the time said they were in the process of updating their programs.

The Tucson chapter was reconstituted later that year, and Higgins became president in 2008.

The group has attracted new blood, including Ralph Hershberger, a SCORE board member and marketing chief, who joined the group in March.

Unlike most SCORE members, Hershberger, 59, is still working, as a private consultant and manager of his wife's veterinary practice in Green Valley.

After being involved in several business startups, he knows the value of good advice.

"What I found was many of the principals in these small firms are usually good at one or two things, and that carries them to a plateau level and then they stall, for whatever reason," Hershberger said. "Being aware of that resource is the big thing - when you're in a startup, you can feel very isolated."

Adam Dellos felt that isolation when he came to SCORE about five years ago, after starting his own computer-services business.

He wasn't sure how to grow, but Higgins helped him see that his one employee at the time wasn't the right fit to move forward.

"It was confidence, and the guidance - there are all these things I'm thinking about, and where do I go?" Dellos said. "What takes 15 minutes of his (Higgins') time, that would take three hours of my time."

Higgins also has helped Dellos move from mainly personal-computer services into business-computing services, refine his offerings and plan for growth.

A more recent client, Val Romero of Arizona Grill & Hearth, said he's gotten help with specific issues, as well as a jump on business planning, in several sessions with Higgins since June.

"I knew I had to take to the next step if I wanted to advance in this business," said Romero, who worked for other local grill shops since 1995 before starting his company in 2005.

At Higgins' suggestions, he got matching shirts with flame trim for his staff, to provide a unified look and promote a sense of community. He's also learned to better prioritize and delegate tasks and plan for growth.

Romero takes the "homework" Higgins gives him - Higgins calls it a "go-do" list - to heart.

"Every time, I leave with a lot of great information, things I work on for the next month," Romero said.

Kimberly Bortz became a SCORE client in February, about a month after launching her online business, Bangbangboutique.com, which offers gun accessories such as cases and bags for women.

Bortz said her main concern was properly handling taxes and legal aspects of her business. SCORE helped her with those issues and how to properly report and pay taxes, and helped her form a limited-liability corporation.

"It made me feel more accountable," said Bortz, 31. "It's amazing, the amount of professional expertise you're getting, and it's all free," she said.

While SCORE is focusing more on existing businesses, it still helps people who have a startup dream.

Sometimes, the advice leads clients to the conclusion that their ideas may be unworkable or they aren't cut out for business ownership, Higgins said.

"It's a reality check, and we do that very positively - we never say things like, 'That's the stupidest idea I ever heard.' "

 

SCORE stories

Company: Adam D. Technology

Owner: Adam Dellos

SCORE client since: 2008

Challenges: Managing growth of the five-year-old computer-services company.

Progress: Dellos has refined his service offerings and expanded from two employees to six. He's carefully planning to expand with additional locations in Tucson and possibly, Sierra Vista.

Quotable: "It was (instilling) confidence, and the guidance - there are all these things I'm thinking about, and where do I go?"

Company: Arizona Grill & Hearth

Owner: Val Romero

SCORE client since: 2011

Challenges: Keeping employees motivated, developing a long-term business plan.

Progress: Trying to build up a sense of community among employees, Romero created a unified look with company-logo polo shirts. He's learned how to better prioritize tasks and is working to update his business plan with an eye on expansion.

Quotable: "I get the benefit out of it because I do my homework, and I want to be better at what I do."

Company: Bang Bang Boutique LLC

Owner: Kimberly Bortz

SCORE client since: 2011

Challenges: Understanding tax and legal issues, business planning.

Progress: Bortz has set up a proper tax-reporting system, established a limited-liability company and is working on a business plan.

Quotable: "I think it's helped me get a lot farther along than I would have been alone."