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Coaching session helps protect ailing family business

She runs a security business in the Bronx. He's a retired Manhattan apparel exec.

They were perfect strangers until they met last week in a crowded room in Lower Manhattan where other couples also were getting to know each other for the first time.

At the end of their chat, they traded contact info and promised to talk again.

It looked like a speed date, but Jessica Johnson, the 35-year-old co-owner of Johnson Security Bureau, a third-generation family business that provides security guards to offices, construction sites, medical facilities and apartment buildings, wasn't seeking romance.

Neither was Herbert Winkler, a 76-year-old volunteer counselor at Score New York.

Johnson was one of 80 business owners granted a free coaching session through a partnership of Score, a nonprofit affiliated with the U.S. Small Business Administration, and American Express Open, the credit card giant's small business venture.

Score pairs volunteer business mentors, most of whom are retired entrepreneurs, with small business owners eager to learn from their experience.

Like the other advice seekers that day, Johnson had just 30 minutes before her counselor would move on to his next client. She was determined to make the most of her session.

"I want to make sure that I am doing whatever I can do to position us to grow for the future," Johnson told Winkler.

She laid out her issues quickly.

Following last year's death of her father, one-time state Assemblyman Charles Ronald Johnson, the former pharmaceutical sales rep assumed the reigns of the company founded by her grandparents in 1962.

Sales peaked at $3.2 million in 2005, and the business employed nearly 200 people. Since 1996, Johnson Security had qualified for an SBA program that offers certain minority-owned businesses easier access to lucrative federal contracts.

But in 2005, Johnson Security's SBA designation expired and revenues have been spiraling ever since - falling to $200,000 last year.

The company now employs just 15 and has two customers: Battery Park City Authority and the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp.

"I need jobs and customers," Johnson said.

"Score can help you," assured Winkler, who ran a $30 million jeans manufacturing company and also worked in real estate management. "We are available to come to your business. We can meet as often as you want. It is all free."

Beyond the friendly banter, Johnson needed Winkler's views on her business development strategy. She's submitted an application to have Johnson Security take part in a U.S. Department of Transportation program aimed at assisting minority-owned and women-owned businesses get government contracts. That would position the company to compete for federal stimulus projects.

But while Johnson pursues government business, she's determined to add residential property managers. She knows she can no longer rely on her grandparents' and father's contacts.

Johnson told Winkler she's written to prospective customers.

"Do you follow up on the phone after you send a letter?" Winkler asked.

"That's a must," he advised. "No one will read a letter and get back to you. You have to follow through. It's the single most important thing in selling."

Their discussion moved to pricing. Johnson said she faces heavy competition from veterans and retired cops. Often, she cannot match their low bids.

"I have cut as much as I can," she told Winkler.

"You have to prove you will do more than the lowest bid," he said. "Guarantee what you will do for them. When I was in real estate, I didn't take the highest or the lowest, I took the middle."

Johnson's time was almost up.

She handed Winkler a package about her company, including samples of recent bids. He said he'd get back to her with feedback. Winkler also agreed to visit her office to review her billing system.

Explaining why he spends part of his retirement as an unpaid business coach, Winkler said, "I want to stay in the business world. I made my mark. I want to give back."

"We can create a long-term relationship," Johnson said hopefully to Winkler before heading back to work - where she planned to brief her staff on what she had learned.

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Coaching session helps protect ailing family business