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Sixty nine-year-old Ray Dawson is running a small business again after being retired for 4 years. His company is installing solar panels in the Sault Ste. Marie area. (Paul Norbo)
Sixty nine-year-old Ray Dawson is running a small business again after being retired for 4 years. His company is installing solar panels in the Sault Ste. Marie area. (Paul Norbo)

Entrepreneurship

Ditching retirement to go green Add to ...

69-year-old Ray Dawson plans on spending his summer hefting bulky solar panels up a clanking extension ladder, and then installing them on to a roof near you.

A lifelong entrepreneur, Mr. Dawson recently re-mortgaged his home to come out of an eight-year retirement and launch his third business in Sault Ste. Marie, Algoma District Solar Energies Inc.

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With three family members employed in a business that he expects will soon double in size, Mr. Dawson says he can't imagine ever retiring or working for someone else.

"I'd have to either fall off a roof or have a heart attack," he says during a break from a contract just west of Sault Ste. Marie.

Mr. Dawson is one of about 2.7 million self-employed Canadians, but he's also of an even rarer breed: that special set of lifelong serial entrepreneurs, driven to self-employment and eagerly on the job long after most of us have retired.

While there is little data on Canada's senior entrepreneurs, data from the U.K. and the U.S. reveals that of those over 65 who are still working, around one-third are self-employed, says Simon C. Parker. Mr. Parker is the director of the Driving Growth Through Entrepreneurship & Innovation Cross-Enterprise Leadership Research Centre at the Richard Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario.

The benefits of being your own boss are plain to see. But why do so many entrepreneurs continue to work well beyond their late 60s when they could be spending their golden years with family and friends?

"Because they can," says Stewart Thornhill, executive director of the Pierre L. Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship at the Richard Ivey School of Business.

The serial entrepreneurs Prof. Thornhill adjectives such as "adrenaline" and "rush" when describing running their own business.

"They've never felt more engaged and more involved than when they are running their business and they just want to go back for another hit," he says.

Mr. Dawson doesn't disagree.

The son of a general contractor, he worked with his father, a carpenter, throughout his youth, before going on to university for a degree in psychology.

Between the ages of 35 and 41, he employed nine staff at a government-funded group home he ran that helped young offenders transition back into society. When government funding petered out, Mr. Dawson returned to contracting and ran his own home renovation business for 20 years.

"It's nice to be my own boss," he says. "If I didn't want to work for a customer, I could say I was too busy, and I liked being able to pick the people I worked with."

He retired at the age of 61 only because he was diagnosed with colon cancer and feared he would be unable to fulfill client contracts.

Nevertheless, he drove a cab when he wasn't undergoing chemotherapy-not for the money, but for his own sense of self-worth, he says.

After eight years of relative retirement and with his cancer in apparent remission, Mr. Dawson is back in the entrepreneurship game.

In March, while he was researching a solar energy system for his own home to reduce his carbon footprint, Enphase Energy invited him to become a distributor and installer of their solar panel systems.

He remortgaged his home to buy his own system, the decision made plenty of financial sense for Mr. Dawson. His system cost $55,000 to install, but he earns $800 per month selling his electricity back to the grid at a rate of more than 80 cents per kilowatt hour. He budgets about $300 of that $800 for his new mortgage, while the remaining $500 is pocket money.

Algoma District Solar Energies Inc. has since sold three Enphase Energy systems. Interest in solar power is growing quickly enough that Mr. Dawson expects to more than double the size of his business in a year or so.

He admits that his new business is physically challenging, but he has no plans to slow down.

"As long as my health is good and my cancer doesn't return, I will be installing solar systems because it's the right thing to do," he says.

The ability to earn a living pursuing one's passion is the second most popular reason why Canadians become entrepreneurs, according to research done by BizLaunch.ca, Canada's largest small business training company. The most popular reason is lifestyle and the third is financial.

"It's the passion, the addiction, the challenge," says Roger Pierce, BizLaunch.ca co-founder. "They don't want to lose that adrenaline rush that can truly only come from creating something from scratch."

People who have already operated successful businesses have a good chance of being successful again because of their experience, says Mr. Pierce. However, there are risks that don't necessarily apply to first-time business owners.

Repeat entrepreneurs can be exhausted from running a previous enterprise and might not be ready to put up the same fight they did the first time around. Alternatively, overconfidence at their likelihood of success can also be a dangerous mentality for an experienced entrepreneur, Mr. Pierce says.

"Because entrepreneurs get very excited about what they do and they don't see it as a risk, there's a tendency to over-invest," he says. "Give yourself a play budget."

True to the entrepreneurial spirit, Mr. Dawson of Algoma District Solar Energies Inc. doesn't feel he's overextended his finances, despite re-mortgaging his house for 25 years.

What concerns him is that he's his own boss, he's employing his family, and he's helping the environment one rooftop at a time.

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