Midlife crisis? Not for these entrepreneurs starting again
Craig Nickoloff and Bill Hustedt, former partners of the Claim Jumper chain, are terrible at leisure.
One year after selling the homegrown restaurant franchise, the baby boomers already were contemplating a business comeback.
“I was twiddling my thumbs,” said Nickoloff, a third-generation restaurateur born in Los Angeles and raised in Los Alamitos.
Hustedt, who has done finance in the food business for three decades, checked on his almond-orchard operation in the Central Valley and other investments, but life just wasn’t the same.
“They didn’t give you the day-to-day excitement that running a business does,” he added.
Motivated by boredom, burnout or a brilliant idea, more mid-career professionals are waving goodbye to early retirement and corporate comfort zones and are instead launching second acts.
More than 23 percent of entrepreneurs starting companies are ages 55 to 64, up from 14 percent in 1996, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which tracks startup activity.
Chalk that up to longer lifespans and the need to save more for retirement. Additionally, decades of corporate experience and savings could mean an easier entry into a later-year second act.
But once in, the usual entrepreneurial risks are not only present, they can also be amplified by the fact there’s less time to recover from any setbacks.
The Register talked to Nickoloff, Hustedt and other locals who discussed the ups, downs and everything in between about starting midlife ventures ranging from food and technology to nonprofit work.
Tech consultant-turned-startup founder
By age 43, Ray Grainger was a Newport Beach homeowner and pulling in a high six-figure salary as a global managing partner at one of largest consulting firms in the world.
Maintaining all that, though, came at a price; the long hours and coast-to-coast commutes were pulverizing him.
“Many mid-career executives find themselves asking, ‘God, there’s gotta be a better life,’” said Grainger, whose background is in high-tech consulting. “You’d wake up in cold sweats.”
Now at 52, the Irvine resident says he has a firmer hold on life as the founder and chief executive of the tech firm, Mavenlink, which in the past five years has raised $18 million in venture-capital funding.
Getting here has taken guts, time and perseverance.
After quitting Accenture in 2005, Grainger took a huge pay cut to join the executive team of InQuira, which makes call-center management software.
There, he got a crash course on the ins and outs of operating a nascent tech company.
Joining a startup at his age briefly felt like a step back, but Grainger reminded himself it was part of a larger plan. He wanted to see if he had the qualities to make an impact at an independent venture.
Around the time InQuira was acquired by Oracle for an undisclosed amount, Grainger built up a nest egg, thanks to his investment in InQuira and the liquidation of Accenture stock.
The timing worked out well as access to “cloud” services allowed tech startups like his to launch with significantly lower overhead.
Mavenlink, a cloud-based service that helps professional-service providers conduct business online, was launched in 2010.
Since then, Grainger has grown its client list to 600,000, which includes companies such as the Irvine Co. and Stanford University.
It has also attracted the attention of wealthy backers, including local tech heavyweights Vinny Smith, of venture firm Toba Capital, and Jim Madden, co-founder of Carrick Capital Partners.
Leaving the familiar world of corporate consulting in his 40s filled Grainger with fear and panic, especially with a wife and children.
Offering tremendous support was his mother-in-law, who lived with them and helped raise their son and daughter, who are both in college.
Another source of support were his professional circles, which by midlife, can be robust.
“It takes time to build a network,” he added. “There were people I knew very well that I trusted and trusted me. I had a strong business reputation I could leverage.”
“Once you get the feel of it, you charge ahead, full steam ahead,” said Nickoloff, who founded Claim Jumper with his father in 1977 and saw it grow to 37 locations.
On a recent weekday, he and business partner, Hustedt, walked among bundled-up workers who were cleaning up lamb racks, prepping chicken and band-sawing porterhouse steaks at a frigid warehouse in Brea.
They were inside West Coast Prime Meats, a 38,000 square-foot meat operation the duo never expected to grow as quickly as it did.
Since its inception four years ago, the business has seen sales skyrocket from $8 million to $80 million.
The privately held company employs 160, up from 35 at its launch. The staff is so close to outgrowing the space, the co-partners are scouting for new digs.
Shortly after selling Claim Jumper to a private-equity firm in 2005, Nickoloff, 63, traveled a bit.
However, after “12 months of living the easy life, I was ... looking for the next adventure,” he said.
Hustedt, 59, who served as Claim Jumper’s chief financial officer, hit a similar wall.
They worked on separate ventures for the next few years and reunited in 2009 to try to buy back Claim Jumper, which was going through bankruptcy.
They ultimately withdrew their bid as the purchase price escalated. Houston-based Landry’s won out instead.
Undeterred, they changed direction.
After the Landry’s purchase, Claim Jumper’s meat-supply business dissolved. Subsequently, Nickoloff and Hustedt purchased that operation’s assets and equipment and started anew.
Armed with their restaurant contacts and some former Claim Jumper employees, they launched West Coast Prime Meats, a meat distributor that also provides menu consulting.
Clients include the Nick’s restaurant chain, owned by his Nickoloff’s son, Islands and the Beverly Hills Hotel.
“We do talk the restaurant talk and understand their issues,” said Nickoloff, who’s a partner in Nick’s. “That’s an advantage ... because we’ve been in their shoes.”
The operation includes a poultry room, a grinding operation, and a room reserved for dry-aging beef.
Hustedt advises would-be entrepreneurs to “stick with what you know in whatever industry you have experience in.”
Architecture and cooking are more alike than you may think, says local chef and Huntington Beach native Cathy Pavlos.
Both crafts, her passions, involve a mix of art, edginess and science.
“We put little pieces of architecture on our plates,” adds Pavlos, who owns and runs Lucca Cafe in Irvine and Provenance in Newport Beach.
Unlike the founders of West Coast Prime Meats and Mavenlink, the 60-year-old architect by trade launched her second act in an unrelated field with no previous experience.
She has had an affinity for buildings since childhood.
Growing up, Pavlos and her two brothers worked in her dad’s construction business, often handling cleanup on work sites.
She was the only female in her high school drafting classes for four years. She was also among the first 10 women admitted to Cal Poly Pomona’s five-year architectural program in 1974.
After two decades of practice and teaching, she was on track to become the associate dean of the college of architecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Despite being thrown “a bunch of money,” she turned down the rare opportunity of being a 40-something female academic in a male-dominated field.
Pavlos says she never felt like she truly belonged in Texas. Plus, she was homesick.
In 2001, she returned to the Golden State, where she quickly realized no one was hiring in her field.
“It’s time for a change,” said Pavlos, who by that point logged 20 years as a professional architect.
As she contemplated options, her mind went straight to fond memories of helping her Italian grandma in the kitchen as a kid.
Culinary arts, it is, she decided.
She learned what she could during a three-week cooking boot camp at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley.
Despite going through what she calls “my own version of ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’” she was set on learning the restaurant business from the ground up.
She took a job as a dishwasher at a small cafe, earning $6.75 an hour. Meanwhile, she continued to save up for the design and launch of her first restaurant, Lucca Cafe, which she opened at age 51.
It took three years for her eatery to break even. She credits getting through the roughest part, her first year, to having a cash reserve.
“It’s a hard, hard business with a small bottom line,” she said. “It’s not a business for sissies.”
She’s particularly proud that Lucca survived the Great Recession, and a $300,000 small-business loan she used to purchase restaurant equipment is expected to be paid off by February.
Her latest achievement: launching her second restaurant, Provenance, a California wine country-themed eatery in Newport Beach.
If she could start her second act all over again, she would’ve started smaller, making a new venture easier to manage.
“There’s nothing wrong with starting small rather than medium and large and running to catch up,” Pavlos advises.
People contemplating a mid-career change should remember the many factors working in their favor, she adds.
Many by midlife have built up some kind of nest egg, and their children are usually grown and out of the house. Don’t forget the experience you’ve accumulated.
“There’s a bit of a liberating quality there,” Pavlos adds.