Starting a business in retirement: four women who've figured out how to make money working at their retirement community.

All you need to know about retirement.
March 24 2011 7:00 AM

Retirement Entrepreneurs

They may live in "Leisure World," but these clever, ambitious retirees have figured out how to make money by turning their neighbors into customers.

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Marcia Gould in her pumpkin-colored kitchen.
Marcia Gould in her pumpkin-colored kitchen

Marcia Gould. Many people who come to Leisure World are selling the house where they raised their families to move to a much smaller apartment. But parting with a lifetime of furniture and mementos can be so painful that some end up stuffing the contents of that house into their new place. That's where Marcia Gould, 73, comes in. From visiting apartments of fellow Leisure World residents, she saw an opening that would allow her finally to realize her dream of being an interior designer.

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Gould has had many jobs. She was a secretary. Then she stayed home with her two children. Then she helped her husband with his liquor store, bar, and restaurant. But always she wanted to pursue her passion for design. In her 50s, after her two daughters were grown, she enrolled in community college and earned an associate's degree in interior decorating. But starting over in middle age in the decorating business was too hard, so she took an administrative-assistant job with the federal government, finally retiring at age 67. Why did she work so long? "Money. I paid for both my daughters' colleges and weddings. My husband and I traveled everywhere. I would have worked longer, but I got offered a $25,000 buyout."

She's busy with activities, from tai chi to volunteering at a nursing home. But at Leisure World she realized, she had a built-in customer base for her design services. Gould abhors clutter and loves color. She knows that her fellow Leisure World residents are often on fixed incomes, so for $50 an hour she can quickly give advice on which pieces of furniture to ditch, how to arrange what's left, and what color to put on the walls to banish the institutional white.

Getting rid of stuff is a sensitive topic. "I have clients who say, 'This was my mother-in-law's, this was my mother's.' I had one client who had three sofas in the living room." We go down the hall to the apartment of client Fred Denecke. He's a retired Navy pilot, a veteran of World War II who won't give his age—he's a widower who's dating. We enter the apartment with its striking Asian art, and Gould waves her hand around it and says, "This was—" at which Denecke interrupts, "Shocking. Shocking." She indicates where she has moved a picture here, placed a rug there.

She has no plans to retire until circumstances force her: "As long as I can move, I will be active. If you do not move, you're going to get old."

Barbara Manning holds her cosmetology license.
Barbara Manning holds her cosmetology license

Barbara Manning. Manning, who will be 61 next month, spent almost 30 years as a special-education teacher. "It was like a bad marriage I was trapped in for financial reasons," she says. She, like Realtor Heyman, was ready for adult conversation. She took an early retirement in her 50s, and moved into Leisure World two years ago with her mentally disabled younger sister.

She always had a flair for hair and she used to style her friends and relatives, but without a license, she couldn't take paying customers. Then a small inheritance a few years ago allowed her to go to cosmetology school and get trained as a beautician. She worked at the Hair Cuttery, but quickly realized she wanted her own business.

When she came to Leisure World, she saw there were many housebound older residents. She realized she could offer a unique service: She could go to their apartments and do their hair. She bought a rolling cart, filled a closet at home with beauty supplies, and began advertising in the Leisure World News. She charges $18 for a cut, $50 for a perm.

"They break a hip. They get sick. They're taking care of a spouse. There are lots of reasons people need you to come to them. I'm older. I can relate. I have rapport," she says. She now has about 25 regular clients, and because she lives on-site, she is able to attend to last-minute hair needs. One client called her on Thanksgiving Day, another on New Year's Eve. Recently, the daughter of a resident about to undergo chemotherapy called asking Manning to cut her mother's hair as a transition to temporarily losing it.

"Even if people don't leave the house, they want to look nice. They have a therapist coming. One husband calls to arrange appointments for his wife before she goes to the doctor." Many of her clients had accomplished careers and were world travelers. As Manning does a wash and set, she often hears that they mostly miss the little things: being able to do their own grocery shopping and make a meal, going out to choose a gift for the grandchildren. It's made her grateful for her own independence. "I say, 'Thank you, Lord,' that I'm able to clean my own bathroom."

Manning has an easy, graying pixie cut she maintains herself. But she doesn't push particular styles on clients. "Some people say, 'I don't want an old lady haircut.' " Some want a traditional wash and set. "I'm not an artiste. I provide a service." She hopes to keep going for at least the next decade. She's looking to expand her base by offering her services one or two days a week at nearby assisted-living communities and nursing homes. "I'm busy and I see myself getting busier."

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