Last year, Paul M. Klass of Brentwood embarked upon a new career -- actually his third in 28 years.
It was a move made of necessity. An engineer, Klass was laid off in June 2009 from Long Island defense contractor BAE Systems. He was 49. After a yearlong, unsuccessful job search, he started working as an independent financial consultant and franchisee with Compound Profit Advisors, assisting small businesses with alternative financing, equipment leasing and other services.
Klass knew he didn't want to work from home and that he couldn't afford to move into a traditional brick-and-mortar office. So, he chose a virtual office, a work-space solution that's becoming increasingly popular with older workers, among others, who are starting a new business, phasing out an existing one or taking a home-based venture to the next level.
Several companies on the Island offer some type of virtual office, with shared office space, equipment and services in large, professional buildings.
For a fee, clients can use the company's high-profile business address and have access to amenities such as a furnished office, large conference room, fax machine, copier, scanner, high-speed Internet and video phone conferencing.
Each client can also have a dedicated phone line, enabling the receptionist to answer calls with a different greeting for each business. Clients can choose from an a la carte menu of services or bundle them to suit their needs.
Klass, now 51, uses the services available at Intelligent Office, a 7,000-square-foot suite at 445 Broad Hollow Rd., in Melville. For about $100 a month, he gets a locked mailbox, dedicated business phone line, receptionist services and "a prime Melville address in Long Island's financial corridor."
If he needs to use a private office or conference room to meet with clients, he pays an additional hourly or daily fee.
"This works for me at a very low cost," Klass says. "When I need to sit with someone, I have the space here. I get the services that would be an unaffordable cost for me and my small business if I had to open my own office. I get the advantages -- the fully staffed, fully equipped office -- and I don't have to pay someone to sit at a desk and wait for me to give them something to do."
The virtual office concept has definite advantages, says Lucille Wesnofske, regional director for the Small Business Development Center at Farmingdale State College.
"Because of the economy they're gaining in popularity," she says. "You can start small and don't have to rent a storefront right way. They also offer options for people who don't want to sink their life savings into something they're just trying out. It's great for baby boomers who are not ready to retire . . . and more economical for some small businesses to fill a gap without breaking the bank."
In addition to the economic benefits, a virtual office can give the impression that a business is larger and more established and offer older entrepreneurs networking opportunities. "You are able to trade and share ideas in a way you wouldn't be able to if you were working out of your home," she says. "It's having someone to work and share ideas with without working in a vacuum."
The concept works for Marty Gruber of East Hampton on many levels. "I'm past retirement age, but I'm still working because I don't have any hobbies," says the 70-something Gruber, who has been in business for 40 years -- and has no immediate plans to stop working. His company, MOS Associates Inc., sells components for electronics equipment to manufacturers throughout the New York- New Jersey metro area.
When he's not driving to meet with clients, Gruber says he works mostly out of his home and pays someone to answer his business calls. To handle the rest, he pays $79 a month for a private mailbox at Totus Business Centers, 105 Maxess Rd., in Melville, and when he needs a conference room for presentations or meetings, he pays a bit extra.
"I've had offices before. I don't need that," Gruber says. "With the downturn in the economy, it seemed like the right thing to do."
Real estate broker Joan Wilkinson became a virtual client at Champion Office Suites in Garden City when the Hempstead storefront where she'd rented an office was shuttered. She ticks off a long list of high-ticket items she doesn't have to pay for under the new arrangement, including a long lease, office furniture, utility bills, insurance, maintenance crews and garbage pickup.
"I don't have to be concerned about who's going to shovel the snow in front of the building" -- or risk being fined for not doing it, says Wilkinson, owner of Joan C. Wilkinson Realty, an investor-based real estate company that handles residential and commercial properties and high-tech loans. "All of these things people take for granted. It's no joke."
With the virtual office setup, she pays "at least $350" a month. Sometimes it's a little more or a little less depending on the services she needs. And it's worth every penny for the freedom it affords her, Wilkinson says, because she knows that, at her request, a receptionist can take a message or forward important business calls to her while she's out investigating new properties, attending a conference or even on vacation.
"We have to constantly go out of state and out of the country," says Wilkinson, 64, of South Ozone Park.
"I can be in the Bahamas," she says, and "a call can come through. They [her clients] won't know where I am. I can take care of the call and still be on vacation, basking in the sun, getting my tan, you know? Now where can you do that where you have an office in New York and can be basking in the sun and getting your calls and doing business?"