Tampa Bay's 50 and over entrepreneurs mix passion and experience to create success

After spending more than 30 years as a pharmacist, Sandy Fandetti acted on a dream from her youth and switched to art, eventually creating Full Circle Creations jewelry design.

“I love making stuff with my hands,’’ she says.

Bob Dixon served 27 years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, retiring as a colonel in 2020 at age 50. He didn’t want to just play golf. Since then, he’s started three businesses. The first was the result of conversations on leadership with fellow retired colonels. Called 5 Eagles Leadership – for the rank’s insignia – it’s a business leader consulting firm.

“I can’t sit still. I haven’t set an alarm since I retired, but for some stupid reason I still keep getting up at 5:30 or 6 o’clock,’’ he says.

Valerie Ellis Lavin, 50, who retired as an Army first sergeant after nearly 22 years, has also started three businesses, including Luminary Global, which makes medical kits for first responders.

And Nan Harper, 61, was recently hurrying to beat the postal deadline to send out customer Christmas orders for embroidered merchandise from the business she started, KaTee’s Bowtique & Custom Embroidery.

All report that business is good. Their ages might have something to do with it. Research has shown that people who start businesses at 50 are twice as likely to succeed as those who start a business at 30, according to a 2022 article in Forbes magazine. MIT, Northwestern, Wharton School of Business and the U.S. Census found that older entrepreneurs are more successful, the article states. They tend to have the experience, knowledge and stability that many younger entrepreneurs lack, according to ZenBusiness.

Lifelong love of drawing inspires a business

Fandetti, 62, whose creations show a talent for drawing, says she has loved drawing since childhood.

“I always thought I’d go to the Rhode Island School of Design,’’ she says. “When I was in high school I took an aptitude test and it said I would make a good pharmacist, so I thought, ‘Well, sure, why not?’ It was that easy, honestly.’’

She knew little about what pharmacists did, she says. “I just knew they kept healthy people healthy and treated sick people and that was right up my alley. I wanted to help people.”

Sandy FandettiShe loved her career in pharmacy, but it was getting to the point that companies seemed more interested in making money than helping people, she says. Staff shortages and more demand on pharmacists’ time, such as giving vaccinations, has added stress to a job that requires complete focus. Making a deadly mistake is always in the back of the mind, Fandetti says.

“I always used to say this to my interns, every time you hit enter in that computer, you have somebody’s life in your hands," she says.

She left the profession at 55, knowing that she wanted to make jewelry “until my hands didn’t work anymore,’’ and knowing also that it took a lot of training to master the art. She took courses under established designers in Florida, Georgia and Texas. She says she found great help at the Tampa Bay Mineral and Science Club.

“I went there one day and I walked in and they really had everything there, from metal smithing, lapidary, they have faceting, lost wax casting, you name it. They’ve got beadwork, wire wrapping. I took everything I could take there. And it was wonderful, it’s like a little family there.’’

Bringing military leadership principles to corporate culture

Dixon chose to concentrate on the art of leadership when he retired from the Army in 2020. He used the skills he had learned over the years to launch 5 Eagles Leadership, with high-ranking former commissioned and non-commissioned officers serving as coaches to company leaders.

It started off as a conversation with fellow retired colonels, he says. “The five of us, sitting around drinking bourbon and telling leadership stories.’’ He thought, “Wouldn’t this be a great conversation to have with civilian leaders about what we learned in the military about leadership and what they can they take away from that?’’Bob Dixon

The coaches’ first lesson in the training sessions is “It’s not about you,’’ Dixon says. “It’s approaching leadership responsibilities with a bit of humility, and I’m not saying that all military leaders do that, but the best ones do,’’ he says.

Bosses need to get over the need to feel like they’re in charge all the time, he says, that they feel like people have to be working for them.

“No, no, you got it backwards,” Dixon says. “You’re working for your troops. And you learn that really quick as a lieutenant.’’ 

“Leaders eat last,” he says, mentioning an old military maxim. “That has been the case in the military forever. And the way I think about that is, when I was a platoon leader I was always the last guy in line because if they ran out of food it was probably my fault, not theirs.’’

He and a former college fraternity brother started LCAB Holdings, which puts a contractor and sub-contractors in the 10 most contracted trades under one umbrella. Its aim is to make the trades work together efficiently. It requires establishing a good operating system and making sure that all the “right people are in the right seats,’’ along with high performance and leadership coaching for senior leaders.

“If your plumber and your electrician don’t get along and they’re not willing to work together and not willing to de-conflict schedules, they’re not willing clean up after each other, this falls on the general contractor or the project manager and it kills your schedule, kills your budget,” Dixon explains.

A third company, Arête Strategic Consulting, is named for a Greek word meaning excellence, Dixon says. That firm is more focused on systems and processes of businesses than training individual leaders.

Launching multiple successful businesses

Lavin started her businesses after serving more than two decades in the Army. For the latest business, called ViTAC Solutions, launched in 2023, she partnered with former Green Berets to produce medical emergency kits.

“The market is those that take leisure to an extreme, if you will,’’ she says. “They know that jumping off a cliff is dangerous, but they’re going to do it anyway kind of folks. Adventurers, outdoorsmen, people who go to gun ranges frequently.’’

The kits contain basic first aid supplies plus items that may be needed for specific activities. That could include tourniquets, scissors that can cut through jeans, QuikClots and Israeli Bandages, she says.

Valerie Ellis LevinIt’s a spinoff of Luminary Global, a business she and her husband, Jeremy Lavin, founded in 2016, which produces emergency and trauma kits for police and fire rescue and tactical gear for military first responders.

Her third business, which she started in 2018 with a partner, Rosie Lee, is called Action Zone. It’s a nonprofit company that trains active military and veterans how to start and maintain businesses. The company has so far helped launch more than 200 businesses employing hundreds of people, she says. 

“And they’re reporting over $18 million in earned revenue,” Lavin adds.

Honing new skills

Nan Harper worked 25 years for companies that embroidered insignias on uniforms and other gear for public safety personnel. Then, at age 53, she opened KaTee’s Bowtique & Custom Embroidery. Using machines, she embroiders towels, pillows, shirts, horse blankets and other items that she sells each week at the Ybor City Saturday Market. Her mail-order business developed through word-of-mouth, she says.

Business suffered while she was battling breast cancer from June of 2022 till last September. She’s now cancer-free and says business has picked back up again.
After she went out on her own, she bought three used commercial embroidery machines, which sell from $20,000 to $50,000 new. The work is not a matter of just feeding the material into a machine. It takes a while to learn such things as how to hoop the items correctly and keep the proper thread tension to produce quality images.Nan Harper

“It took me a couple of years to get pretty good at it,’’ she says.

She enjoys doing the work, and that’s a lot of it, she says. “When you enjoy it, that makes you a little bit better at things.’’

For more information, go to Full Circle Creations, 5 Eagles Leadership, Luminary Global, KaTee's Bowtique & Custom Embroidery
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Read more articles by Philip Morgan.

Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.