‘At Your Age?’ Why This Baby Boomer Ditched Corporate America for Entrepreneurship

Jim Alley was the stereotypical corporate success story. Over the course of 30 years, 20 of which he spent with Motorola, he rose through the ranks from entry-level employee to senior manager. He valued the security, the paycheck, the benefits, and the sense of loyalty and comradery that defined his company’s culture–at least until the mid-2000s, when buzzwords like “rightsizing” and “outsourcing” began to mean “colossal changes.”

In 2015, after his company was acquired by another corporate giant, Alley “became a statistic,” he says. But with the change came the opportunity to change the course of his life. Now, at age 56, Alley has reinvented himself as a franchise owner–a decision he’s happy he made.

The happiness factor

Alley’s later-in-life decision to become an entrepreneur is not uncommon. Baby boomers, the approximately 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964, are twice as likely to launch new businesses as millennials, according to the Kauffman Foundation’s 2015 State of Entrepreneurship report. This is in part because they have the capital to do so, but also stems from financial challenges. Boomers lost between 25 and 28 percent of their median net worth during the recession, according to a study by Pew Charitable Trusts. That pushed back retirement for many.

The aspiring entrepreneur reviewed his finances, but he felt he had earned the right to consider something more–what would make him happy. He suggests other aspiring business owners do the same: think about both where they will be most successful and what they will most enjoy.

Alley wanted the freedom that came with running his own business, but he had some reservations. He thought owning a franchise could mitigate risk. “Did I really want to start from scratch, creating my own inventory, POS, and accounting systems? No. I wanted a proven system,” he explains.

After three months of research, Alley decided to invest in the automotive repair chain Meineke. He was confident it was a sound financial investment; he liked that it was an established brand that he could represent well; and there wasn’t a single Meineke in Little Rock, Arkansas, where Alley lived.

The plan was to distinguish his operation from competitors. By drawing on the “old-fashioned” values that used to define the “company man,” Alley would build a business that embodied loyalty, integrity, and trust. “This industry isn’t exactly known for its customer service. No one says, ‘I can’t wait to go to the automobile shop.’ I saw an opportunity to put my spin on the Meineke brand. Our waiting area feels more like the coffee shop from the sitcom ‘Cheers’ than an auto repair shop,” he says.

A legacy worth the effort

It’s only been a few months, but Alley is pleased with how business is going, especially his repeat customer rate. There are struggles, of course, such as finding and retaining skilled labor, but his wealth of experience makes him adeptly suited to navigate them. He swears by lessons in “The Franchise MBA” by Nick Neonakis. He also recommends creating a spreadsheet for systematically reviewing investment options and visiting franchise locations in-person so you can ask owners about their day-to-day experience.

Alley’s advice to fellow baby boomers with an entrepreneurial dream is to embrace risk. “Don’t be afraid to try a new industry. Your experience is greater than you think,” he says. “I went from telecommunications to auto repair. Those are about as far apart as the east is from the west. But the knowledge and experience you gain as a baby boomer is transferable. That was one of the biggest lessons I learned.”

Alley wants to retire someday, but not until he opens more shops across central Arkansas. “I want to build this thing up for a good 10 years. If I am enjoying it, I will keep it going,” he says. He is motivated by more than money. “I have children–millennials actually. I want them to go live life, but when all is said and done, I want them to be able to take all they’ve learned and enter into something I’ve been able to create for them. That is the legacy I want to leave.”