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," says Block, owner of Earth-Kind, a manufacturer of rat and mice repellent. "I was sick to my stomach."
For many small business owners, the golden years aren't looking so shiny. Many have devoted so much time and money to their businesses that they have failed to plan for retirement.
Catch-up plans for these owners usually consist of aggressively putting money aside, or taking another big risk: planning to sell their companies one day to fund their retirement.
Block, 50, of Bismarck, N.D., didn't start saving for retirement until she was unable to get a loan for Earth-Kind in 2003. Her bank asked for a statement showing her personal financial holdings, including savings and investments. "I looked at the personal finance statement and realized, there's nothing here," she says.
Block has since begun contributing 3 percent of her salary to her retirement account, an amount matched by the company. And 100 percent of any distributions she takes from the business also go toward retirement.
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.
The recession made saving more difficult, if not impossible, for many owners. The downturn, and the plunge in lending to small businesses, forced many owners not only to put saving on hold, but also to use personal assets like bank accounts, stocks and mutual funds to keep their companies running.
The recession forced Len Polonsky to stop saving. Revenue slid at his Farmingdale medical and office supply company, MedStock. He cut more than half his staff of 20 and reduced his own salary by more than 50 percent. He also said he 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. "What is crucial is to make sure the place is viable," says Polonsky, 56. He says he isn't worried about his retirement because he considers his company to be his 401(k), and he does have some savings and investments. He says he wants to resume saving when the business is stronger. "We're probably going to need to see sales up more than 20 percent than we're doing now," he says.
Saving for the future often takes a backseat to building a company for owners in good times or bad. And younger owners are even less likely to pay attention to retirement.
It isn't a priority for Michael Maher, 28, co-owner of Taylor Stitch, a 4-year-old clothing retailer 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 . . . and taking a nominal salary," he says. Maher expects to own more companies in the future, and he expects to sell the businesses and get his retirement savings from the proceeds. He said he believes a company he runs is a better investment than the stock market.
"I am investing money in a business that . . . I control instead of investing in something that I don't control," he says. "I'm controlling my own destiny."