LEWISTON — Ron Blake first approached SCORE in the 1980s when he needed help with a business plan for Cote Bros. Sewing Machines.

He was back a decade later when the North American Free Trade Agreement drop-kicked his bottom line and he needed advice to stay afloat. It worked, and then some.

Blake plans to return to SCORE as a volunteer when he retires and, he hopes, pay back some of that good advice.

The local SCORE chapter turns 40 this month. It doesn’t go by its full name so much anymore (Service Corps of Retired Executives), but its mission is the same, said former Chairman Ralph Tuttle, a 22-year volunteer and now the group’s secretary.

“We’re the starting point for entrepreneurs,” Tuttle said. And, occasionally, established businesses that need a hand.

The Lewiston-Auburn chapter was the national organization’s 325th, according to the framed charter hanging inside an office at the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce building on Lisbon Street. Two years ago, it changed its name to the Central Maine chapter, one of six in the state, each partnered with the U.S. Small Business Administration.

SCORE is resource for advice staffed by volunteer mentors who are former business owners, managers, lawyers, bankers and retirees from other fields. The local chapter answers 15 to 20 requests for help each month, Tuttle said, adding that most filter down from the national SCORE website.

“They’ve got the bug and they come to us for all kinds of basic information,” he said. “It used to be they were young adults, maybe up to 30.”

But with downsizing, the rough economy and more middle managers out of work, entrepreneurs have gotten a little more mature.

“(Starting a business is) something they always wanted to do but couldn’t do it in a 9-to-5 job; now, ‘I’m free,'” Tuttle said.

New clients are paired with at least two mentors. They come in with questions about everything from getting started and how to market themselves to where to find financing.

“You’ve got to have your business plan, capital B, capital P,” Tuttle said. “It’s everything a potential loan provider needs to know before they commit the money.”

Business plans cover the company’s mission, who its principals are and what sets them apart from the competition.

Tuttle said mentors meet with entrepreneurs as many times as they need. The help is free and confidential. He’ll launch a recruiting drive soon for more mentors. The local chapter has eight; he’d like to double that. It’s a commitment of at least three hours a month.

“If we had more volunteers, we could welcome more work,” Tuttle said. “It’s good for the community. The business community needs continual new blood and new ideas.”

He called the work its own reward. “It calls upon your previous life.”

Blake said his mentor, a retired accountant, was instrumental in helping him realign Cote Bros. after NAFTA “just killed” his machine shop overnight.

“We had 16 employees and almost lost everything we had,” Blake said. “We closed the machine shop; I sold off the equipment. I had an 8,500-square-foot building, didn’t know what to do.”

They met over several months, pored over his books and developed a plan that involved leasing a new space and expanding his retail business. Blake got back up to 16 employees and nearly matched his old sales.

“At the time, I couldn’t afford a full-blown consultant,” he said. “That just worked out extremely well for us. My intent is to pay it forward. When I fully retire in a couple years, I’m going to volunteer myself. I’m looking forward to that.”

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