A NASHUA PILATES studio whose owner wanted to do a better job retaining customers. A nonprofit that needed to improve its business practices after opening a second location. An experienced chef who was ready to open his own restaurant.

The three SCORE clients the Merrimack Valley chapter featured in its annual Christmas luncheon Wednesday offered a quick primer on the how nonprofit's mentors - made up of retired business veterans - can help small companies at various stages of growth. Over the past year, the chapter has counseled over 500 new clients, chair Tom Osgood told the group gathered at the Nashua Country Club.

Mara Sievers founded Concord Pilates nearly six years ago, expanding on her experience as an instructor. She connected with SCORE in July, working with mentors Bob Stanley and Gene Calvano.

"I've had 20 percent growth compared to last year in the business so that's great," Sievers said during a cocktail reception before the luncheon. "We've been working mostly on retention and new client acquisition. And it's made an amazing difference in the numbers but also in how fluid it works."

Sievers said she was reluctant at first to work with advisers who didn't have experience in her industry, but she quickly learned they had wisdom she could put to use.

"It was mostly cash flow and retention. I was busy but not busy enough," said Sievers, who has four part-time staff members. "And now at the moment, I'm incredibly busy."

Among the changes Sievers implemented was to offer discounts to continuing customers, which now number more than 100. She also offers an expanded set of free services to new clients during their first visit.

"That gives them a good feeling of trust and a good feeling about us," she said.

Stanley said he and Calvano helped Sievers find her focus.

"We broke down the type of clients she had and what she was getting from each one, which is one is private, which one is group, whatever it was," Stanley said. "(Gene) was able to put together a little spreadsheet for her so she could figure out where her best break-even was, which ones to focus on."

The advisers also examined Sievers' website, with help from Mike St. Laurent of 4Walls Media Group in Bedford. They determined she could improve her search engine optimization.

"She didn't really have a call to action, and the majority of her clients come through her website. So she made a few changes to her website," said Stanley, whose background is in the insurance industry, information technology and project management.

"Project management is kind of like running a business except you get fired instead of go bankrupt," Stanley said with a laugh. "It gives you the skill set to look at something objectively and see how people can get from here to there."

Westbridge Community Services, a Manchester-based nonprofit that provides treatment for mental illness and substance use, needed help after it expanded to two locations, CEO Mary Ryan Woods said.

"We have a great clinical program, but unfortunately we're all clinicians so all of either went to nursing school, social work school or some type of behavioral health care school," Woods told the group during the luncheon. "And we have this business to run. We were doing OK until we opened up a second facility."

The nonprofit's executive team "didn't know what it didn't know," Woods said.

Woods said she remembering hearing about SCORE back in the '80s and decided to contact the group.

"We decided we needed to find some people that had experience and had the education that could help us get to the next level," said Woods, who worked with SCORE mentors Ed Izzo and Calvano. Among the issues was to upgrade the nonprofit's medical records.

"I'd say Gene conservatively looked at 30 software vendors for us," Woods said.

Westbridge also need to revamp its finances.

"We had some challenges with our business practices, and Ed has been wonderful doing some mentoring and then helping us move forward in a new direction with our financial team," Woods said.

Good advice if you can get it - especially when it's free.

"We go to our board of directors and we say 'We're getting all this help,' and they say, 'What's the cost?' and we say, 'It's not costing us anything,'" Woods said. "I just can't tell you how grateful we are. We've improved tremendously as an agency."

Corey Fletcher, a New Hampshire native and Southern New Hampshire University graduate, is readying Revival Kitchen, a new "farm to table" 65-seat restaurant in Concord, building on his experience working as a chef at local restaurants.

"I originally reached out to SCORE to obtain help with securing financing to take over a current restaurant, not to buy the space but to lease it and buy all the assets involved," said Fletcher, who praised his mentor, Calvano, for his expertise.

"He and SCORE definitely helped me. I got no kickback whatsoever from the banks as far as the business cash-flow model that we put together," Fletcher said. "That was invaluable to me. We worked with the CRDC (Capital Regional Development Corp.) a little bit, and we got more than we expected for the operating fund, which is coming in very handy right now."

The luncheon also featured a keynote address from Jeff Feingold, editor of the New Hampshire Business Review. Feingold spoke about the challenges businesses face in the Granite State, including a shortage of skilled workers, the need for better education and training, and high energy costs.

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