Metro-East News

Think you’re too old to become an entrepreneur? Not in Fairview Heights.

Canine to 5

Judy Marie Kocinski, owner of Canine to 5 Pet Services, talks about becoming an entrepreneur in her 60s and operating a business that provides pet-sitting, dog-walking, poop-scooping, grooming and transportation in the St. Louis area.
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Judy Marie Kocinski, owner of Canine to 5 Pet Services, talks about becoming an entrepreneur in her 60s and operating a business that provides pet-sitting, dog-walking, poop-scooping, grooming and transportation in the St. Louis area.

Perhaps it was fate that Judy Marie Kocinski fell down a set of stairs and broke her leg in 2014.

The sales manager for a construction company took four months off, giving her time to heal and do some “soul-searching.” At 63, she wasn’t ready to retire, but she was tired of working for other people.

“In my head, I’ve always been an entrepreneur,” said Kocinski, now 67, of Belleville. “I was always thinking outside the box in how to market things and bring in more business. I thought, ‘If I can do that for other people, I should be able to do it for myself.’”

The following year, Kocinski started her own business, Judy’s Hands for Helping, which she renamed Canine to 5 Pet Services after buying another company in St. Louis. She and her daughter, Jamie Kocinski, of Ballwin, Missouri, offer pet-sitting, dog-walking, feeding, transportation, poop-scooping and grooming on both sides of the river.

“I love it,” said “Granny Judy” Kocinski, who has 10 employees, two children and six grandchildren. “I’ve always been an animal lover, and to be able to take care of all these animals, it’s wonderful.”

Kocinski is one of a growing number of Americans who are working past traditional retirement age and, in some cases, starting their own businesses later in life.

The trend isn’t lost on Paul Ellis, economic development director for the city of Fairview Heights. He’s making it a priority to create opportunities for “encore entrepreneurs” in the community.

“We need to adjust to the fact that there are a lot of aging workers,” Ellis said. “They have a lot of wisdom and experience that they can bring together, but we haven’t done much to tap that resource.”

Changing face of entrepreneurship

Statistics on new businesses are compiled each year by the Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City-based non-profit that promotes entrepreneurship through research, grants and education.

Its annual Kauffman Index of Startup Activity reported in 2017 that activity had declined among young people, ages 20 to 34.

“On the other hand, older adults are a growing segment of the U.S. entrepreneurial population,” according to the report. “Individuals ages 55 to 64 have gone from making up 14.8 percent of new entrepreneurs in 1996 to 25.5 percent of all new entrepreneurs in 2016.”

Paul Ellis mug.jpg
Paul Ellis, economic development director for Fairview Heights, has given presentations at conferences on why cities should help older people become entrepreneurs. Teri Maddox

In August, Ellis led a workshop called “Encore Entrepreneur Roundtable” for local residents over 50. About 30 people showed up to learn about resources, ask questions and make suggestions.

In October, Ellis gave a presentation on the topic at the International Economic Development Council Conference in Atlanta. He shared recommendations from a Center for an Urban Future report called “Starting Later: Realizing the Promise of Older Entrepreneurs in New York City.”

“A growing number of New Yorkers over 50 are quietly but purposefully turning to entrepreneurship, boosting the city’s economy and helping scores of older New Yorkers become more financially secure,” it states.

Some of the recommendations Ellis hopes to implement locally include:

  • Encouraging older adults to consider entrepreneurship.
  • Holding start-up competitions for encore entrepreneurs.
  • Launching a public small-business incubator.
  • Increasing business-focused tech training for older adults.
  • Developing mentoring opportunities, including intergenerational.
  • Promoting networking opportunities in the community.
  • Supporting and scaling up home-based businesses.
  • Compiling better data on older entrepreneurs.
  • Helping people transition from workplace to self-employment.
  • Creating a succession-planning system for existing businesses.

Small-business incubator in the works

For months, Ellis has been working with the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, which has a Fairview Heights office, to launch an entrepreneurial incubator that focuses on women, other minorities and older adults who want to start businesses.

Officials have developed goals, identified possible funding sources and recruited partners in the community. They expect the incubator to be up and running by next spring.

“There are people out there who would like to own their own business, but they don’t have a business plan,” Urban League Regional Vice president of Workforce Development and Strategy Michael K. Holmes said in August.

“They don’t have financing. They don’t even have an office. Maybe they have a business in their home, but they’d like to get out in the community.”

The incubator could help with everything from conceptual planning and financing to comparing health-care plans and finding affordable spaces to lease.

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Kathy Wagner, left, poses with her mother, Rosie Kerr, who died in 2015 of complications from Alzheimer’s. Wagner recently formed an organization to help caregivers. Teri Maddox

Kathy Wagner, 56, of Fairview Heights, attended Ellis’s workshop in August. She recently founded a non-profit organization after working more than 20 years as a police officer, detective, investigator and, most recently, diversity outreach coordinator for the Court Appointed Special Advocates program.

“When you’re 50-something years old, you can’t chase people like you used to,” she said. “It’s time to sit down.”

Wagner’s organization is called the Rosie Kerr Foundation. She helps caregivers of Alzheimer’s and other terminally ill patients, drawing on her experiences caring for her mother, Rosie Kerr, who died in 2015.

Wagner leads support groups at Faith Family Church in Shiloh and Mount Zion Mission East in East St. Louis. She works out of her home, but hopes to move into an office and hire other staff someday.

“I’m not looking to become a billionaire,” she said. “I’m looking to start a business that helps people.”

Teri Maddox has been a reporter for 35 years, joining the Belleville News-Democrat in 1990. She also teaches journalism at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. She holds degrees from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and University of Wisconsin-Madison.