Wally Blume worked in the dairy business for two decades, first for grocery chain Kroger and later as sales and marketing director for a large dairy in Michigan, where he helped market new ice cream flavors. But soon after another company purchased the dairy, Blume decided that the once-innovative company was falling short, prompting him and a couple of colleagues to quit to develop and market their own flavors. In 1995 the partners had a national hit with Moose Tracks (a combo of vanilla, peanut-butter cup, and fudge), and within a few years Blume decided he'd be better off running his own company.
In 2000, Blume mortgaged his house and every other asset he could, plunking down what he says was "seven figures" to buy out his partners and start anew. That same year, he launched Denali Flavors, a marketing and licensing company that creates new ice cream and dessert concepts for independent regional dairies, allowing them to compete with the big national dairy brands. Looking back, Blume says: "I knew I could run it better than my partners. In my opinion there was just no downside to the risk."
While Blume's path from corporate suit to entrepreneur may sound familiar, his story has a twist: Blume was 61 when he went into business for himself.
In recent years, the number of individuals starting their own businesses during what is usually considered the "retirement years" has been rising, according to economists and small-business observers. And so has the age at which they are starting their own ventures: According to the nonprofit AARP Public Policy Institute, in 2008, 21% of the self-employed were between 55 and 64, while 10% were 65 and older. Of course, not every self-employed senior is an entrepreneur, but experts believe the stock market's recent brutalization of retirement accounts will prod additional older Americans to start their own businesses.
A combination of economic volatility as well as the growing number of baby boomers with time, energy, and money on their hands has redefined the starting age for new startups and has led to a surge in senior citizen entrepreneurs. This is a category that is only recently being studied. Five years ago, Boston's Putnam Research reported that some 7 million previously retired Americans had returned to work. Similarly, a 2005 study by the Center on Aging & Work/Workplace Flexibility at Boston College found that workers 50 and older are more likely than younger folks to own their own businesses.
While Blume concedes that betting the farm on launching a business in his 60s was a dicey proposition, he says his age and experience gave him an unparalleled advantage. "I always wanted to go into business for myself when I was younger," he says. "But I didn't have the money. At 61 if I was trying to get into a business that I didn't understand and spent that kind of money, someone should have put me in a home. But I understood this business, and I saw its potential." Moreover, he says his time in the trenches also left him with a strong sense of what not to do. "I paid off my loans in 25 months," he notes. And today, Denali Flavors earns about $80 million annually and has licensing agreements with a number of manufacturers. Denali's 40 different flavors can be found in all 50 states as well as Canada. Now 70, Blume is just getting started, having launched two additional ventures: a sauna business and a boat pontoon outfit.
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