By Leslie Johnson
At 51, Jerome Edmondson didn’t envision being where he is now, heading up a business that’s looking to add a few hundred jobs to the local economy.
But he wouldn’t make a different decision if he could.
“The last thing I thought I would do at 50 was starting a new business,” said Edmondson, president and CEO of call center Toptel USA Customer Contact Center in Dunwoody at 4470 N. Shallowford Rd.
Edmondson was brought in as a consultant by the investors of the business, which had faltered under previous ownership.
But Edmondson saw an opportunity to start fresh.
The business since August 15 has hired 25 people, is in the process of bringing on 25 more, and plans to create a total of 250-300 jobs over six to eight months.
There may have been a time when people in their 50s would be considered more or less settled down in their industries or careers. Not anymore.
“We have more an entrepreneurial marketplace now,” Edmondson said.
Through the Entrepreneur Development Network for which he serves as president, Edmondson has been training entrepreneurs for years. He still sees an opportunity to mentor and have a positive influence on students and up-and-coming business owners.
But he’s also proud and excited to grow Toptel, which has clinched AT&T as its first client.
“A lot of us are starting over,” Edmondson said.
Apparently, that’s been a trend in recent years, studies suggest. In 2011, Business News Daily reported that research found that millions of Americans between the ages of 44 and 70 had small business and nonprofit plans.
Websites such as NextAvenue.org and Seniorentrepreneurshipworks.org point out that the wealth of work experience and expertise that people age 55 and up usually have can serve their new ventures well – whether they’re taking over an existing business, beginning from scratch or even embarking on a different career path.
Jon Wittenberg, owner of Minuteman Press in Sandy Springs, has a background in accounting and finance. He worked mostly corporate accounting jobs. His experience includes time with Nextel, but after Sprint bought the company, he was told he would need to relocate to Kansas in order to stay on.
But as he considered his options, Wittenberg thought, “If I’m going to do something for the next 10 to 15 years, I need to be passionate about it.”
So he began to research franchise opportunities and looked deeper into Minuteman Press. With his father’s support, Wittenberg ended up taking over the store at 6780 Roswell Rd.
“I’ve got another step to climb before I can say this is really successful and it’s going to go on for 10-15 more years. [But] the signs are favorable,” he said.
He said some people looked at him curiously when he shared his plans, but not because of his age.
“They were skeptics because they knew my personality,” he said. “They said, “Jon, you’re a back office guy. How are you going to make yourself go out and sell?’ I don’t look at it as selling. I go out there with gifts I’m giving to people and saying, ‘we want to be your neighborhood printer, just give us a chance.’”
“I was skeptical too,” he acknowledged. “I had to prove to myself that I could do it. I’ve had one or two people to say ‘you’re nuts.’ You’re always going to have a devil’s advocate. I’m here to prove them wrong.”
Tommy Tarr, 56, of Brookhaven, didn’t start a new business, but after 28 years with the DeKalb County Police Department and taking early retirement, he found a new career.
Tarr left the police department in 2010. Along the way, he had occasionally asked people he met if they were happy in their professions.
“The people who seemed to be the happiest were the HVAC people,” he said.
Tarr, who received a bachelor’s degree in marketing management from UGA in 1982, studied the applied science of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) at DeKalb Technical College.
He is now a service technician with ACS Inc. in Tucker.
When friends found out that Tarr was training to make a career switch at age 54, they were supportive: “They said they wished they could start new like that too,” Tarr said.
His advice for anyone around his age considering starting a new career: “You’ve got to be ready to start over at the bottom. You’re not going to be making what you were making,” Tarr said.
Edmondson said entrepreneurs should stay positive.
“I would tell anyone never, ever lose hope,” said Edmondson, whose many past endeavors include being the first black Denny’s franchise owner in Michigan, running for DeKalb County CEO, and writing the book “Maximizing Misfortune: Turning Life’s Failures Into Success.”
“Our communities are depending on us to get this market back going,” Edmondson said.
When one business owner adds 30 jobs, another fills 50 positions, and they collectively keep creating positions, after a while, “you’re creating thousands of jobs. I want to be part of the solution,” he said.