CANFIELD, Ohio – Scott Couchenour recalls the worst of times.
His family business closed in 2015 after 44 years and the former CEO was lost as to what to do next.
Couchenour had spent 24 years as the chief operating officer of Cogun Inc. and more than two years as its CEO. Then suddenly, at age 50, his career was gone. He wasn’t sure whether another company would hire him at his age. Nor was he completely sold on working for someone else.
“When you lose your identity, it’s not a pretty sight,” he says. “You start questioning everything.”
Couchenour began to evaluate his skill set and proficiencies. What he discovered were ingredients that could be of great value to business owners near his age who are facing major decisions as they enter what Couchenour calls the “fourth quarter” of life, or essentially over age 45. “All they need is a recipe to put these ingredients together, which I did.”
The result is Serving Strong Enterprises LLC, a consulting and life coach-company that Couchenour established. His firm helps business owners with options as their own careers wind down, while preserving the future of the companies they helped build.
“A typical phrase is exit strategy,” he says. “It could be an option but it’s not the only option.” In fact, Couchenour says there are plenty of alternatives for business owners as they look toward the future and their legacies. His job is to guide them through the process and help them navigate this life transition.
“It’s also more than just succession planning,” he says. “I help flush out the weakest points of the business, identify personal aspirations.”
For example, Couchenour is working with one client on a five-year life plan that initially envisioned the business being turned over to the client’s three sons. “Two years into it, it became clear his kids did not have an interest in it,” he says.
That caused Couchenour and the client to pivot and examine the business from an entirely different perspective. “Now, we’re looking to turn it over to someone who is already employed with the business,” he says.
Meanwhile, the client’s three sons have started their own business, and that client is helping them and “having a ball doing it,” Couchenour says. At the same time, he’s monitoring his business as it’s slowly being sold to employees.”
Couchenour describes life in four quarters.
The first quarter is a nurturing phase as an individuals find their way in life. The second quarter reflects a period in one’s 20s and 30s as they build a career or family, while the third quarter is emblematic of managing this career.
It’s the fourth quarter, however, that Couchenour says could be the most exciting.
“Everybody begins to think about meaning and purpose. There is a desire for freedom,” he says. “You’re starting over from experience. I think it can be our greatest quarter ever.”
Today, Couchenour works with 24 clients who are examining their fourth-quarter futures.
“I’ve embarked on a five-year life plan and I’ve hired Scott to help me with that,” says Nelson Witmer, CEO of Witmer’s Construction Inc. in Salem.
The plan is not just limited to business, Witmer says, but also involves “spiritual, physical, financial and vocational health.”
Witmer says such help is invaluable as he looks to transition to other interests. “It’s really good for us and we’re having a great year. We have a nice backlog and he’s helped us refocus on projects that we’re good at.”
For Couchenour, the transition from corporate executive to life coach has become a fulfilling and rewarding experience. None of it was easy, though.
“This wasn’t by design. I’m an accidental entrepreneur,” he says.
Indeed, for most of his career Couchenour was more than comfortable working behind the scenes at his family’s construction company, Cogun Inc., in North Lima. As chief operating officer, he was in charge of managing the business’s legal, insurance, licensing, bonding and financial reporting – among other responsibilities.
“Pretty much my job was to wake up, come to work, and say, ‘What’s the worst that could happen to our business and how can we protect ourselves?’” he says. “That was my job for 24 years and I absolutely loved it.”
The company was known across the country as a preeminent contractor for church construction projects. By the mid-2000s, its reputation and experience almost assured it would win its share of business.
The financial crisis of 2008-2009 upended all of this.
“It set in motion a five-year slide in business,” he recalls. Bids were more competitive across the country, banks had tightened lending and the company was facing an uneasy future. “After 2008, competitors were more aggressive and we couldn’t compete,” he says.
The company’s board of directors appointed Couchenour CEO to help redirect the company. He opted to focus on regional church projects rather than national builds. Still, the entire economic situation left the firm vulnerable. After a much-needed project was delayed because of factors beyond the company’s control, Couchenour was forced to close its doors.
“After 44 years, 760 projects and approximately a half-billion square feet of building space, we had to close down because of a cash-flow issue,” he says.
For nearly two years, Couchenour said he retreated into what he described as a “cave” and struggled with the reality that his career was over. However, he had also served as a life coach for Cogun employees and opted to put that skill to use to prevent business owners from the same despair he experienced.
Were he working with a partner such as Serving Strong in 2015, it would have mitigated and prevented some of the hardships that followed, he reflects.
“It comes down to ‘How are you going to live your fourth quarter?” Couchenour says. “A business owner with the ability of building and creating something from nothing can take those skills and create a fourth quarter that gives them tremendous meaning and purpose.”
Pictured at top: Scott Couchenour established Serving Strong Enterprises after his family business closed.