NEW YORK — Kari Warberg Block calls it her day of reckoning. It was the day 10 years ago that she realized she had saved nothing for her retirement.
“I started thinking about all the money that had run through my hands over the years, millions of dollars,” said Block, owner of Earth-Kind, a manufacturer of rat and mice repellent.
Block, 50, who has owned four companies over the years, didn’t start saving for retirement until she was unable to get a loan for Earth-Kind in 2003, three years after she started the company, based in Bismarck, N.D. Her bank asked for a statement showing her personal financial holdings, including savings and investments. She only had an annuity she had purchased when she was 18, and a family inheritance. She had never taken money for her retirement out of the companies she had previously owned, which included bookkeeping and delivery services.
“I looked at the personal finance statement and realized, there’s nothing here,” Block said. Bankers want to see an owner’s personal finances because they believe that people who handle their savings and investments well will also do a good job running their companies and be a good credit risk.
Block sought advice on how to save from a Small Business Development Center, a government-sponsored office that gives free counseling to business owners.
Before Block began saving she was in good company. Sixty percent of small business owners surveyed by American Express say they’re not on track to save the money they need for retirement. Seventy-three percent said they’re worried about their ability to save for the lifestyle they want in retirement.
In the first quarter, a survey of small business owners by Pepperdine University and Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. found that 42 percent had used personal assets to fund their companies. Nearly 80 percent of those owners dipped into their savings or investments.
The recession forced Len Polonsky to stop saving. Revenue slid at his medical and office supply company, MedStock. He cut more than half his staff of 20 through layoffs and attrition and reduced his own salary by more than 50 percent. He also stopped drawing from the company’s profits to fund his retirement plan. Having enough money to pay the company’s other expenses was the priority.
Polonsky, 56, isn’t worried about his retirement because he considers his company to be his 401(k).
A study by the Small Business Administration found that only about a third of owners had Individual Retirement Accounts or made contributions to them in 2006. Only 18 percent had a 401(k).
Financial advisers say small business owners are making a mistake when they don’t make their personal finances as much of a priority as their companies’ finances. If the company goes under, the owner can be left with nothing.
Saving for retirement just isn’t a priority for Michael Maher, 28, co-owner of Taylor Stitch, a four-year-old clothing retailer based in San Francisco. He and his partners used their own savings to start and build the company, and they’re relying on their cash flow to buy inventory and run the business.
“We’re plowing all our money back into the company for the most part and taking a nominal salary,” he said.
Maher expects to own more companies in the future, including clothing businesses. He expects to sell the businesses and get his retirement savings from the proceeds. And he believes that a company he runs is a better investment than the stock market.
“I am investing money in a business that I think is viable and that I control instead of investing in something that I don’t control,” he said. “I’m controlling my own destiny.”
From left, Roxi Pfliiger, Dan Johnson, Kari Warberg Block, Andrea Stewart, Becky Smith and Kacey Galster review year-to-date goal progress at Earth-Kind headquarters, in Bismarck, N.D. CEO Warberg Block had a day of reckoning when she realized she had neglected her personal finances to the point where she had little set aside for retirement. (AP Photo/Earth-Kind, Becky J. Smith Photography)×