By Crystal Bozek
LAWRENCE — It started as a hobby for Richard Payeur.
But his knack for arranging authentic-looking silk flower arrangements and renting them out for funerals has turned him into an entrepreneur.
With the steady success Silk Floral Rentals has seen, Payeur, 56, is now hoping to retire from his day job in customer service in just six years.
"It makes life easier when you retire," said Payeur, a Lawrence resident. "I'm hoping I can retire at 62 and continue to make enough money to support my Social Security and pension, and live comfortably."
With more than 25 percent of the U.S. population considered baby boomers, it's no surprise that Americans over the age of 55 are forming businesses at the highest rate of any group.
Payeur is part of the growing trend of boomers becoming entrepreneurs as a way to retire earlier. It's not retirement in the traditional sense.
To a growing number of people, retirement means working as everything from consultants to bakers to wedding planners.
Boomers — born between 1946 and 1964 — are healthier, more educated and living longer. They want to stay productive, according to Andover's Boomer Venture coordinator Karen Payne-Taylor.
Many are also tasked with covering their own cost of health insurance in retirement or have not stashed away a large enough nest egg.
"Very few people plan on the traditional retirement. It's the new retirement," Payne-Taylor said. "Many people, with over a third of their life left, can't afford to retire."
Payne-Taylor's Boomer Venture is a series of classes available at the Andover Senior Center for the younger over-55 set, offering classes in everything from yoga to life coaching and financial management.
Many of the boomers she meets want to try their hand at being their own boss. A retiring educator wants to teach English as a second language; another woman who wants to start an errand and personal assistant business; and a third boomer has started teaching cooking as a side job.
The money is there for many of them. Boomers have better access to business-starting capital, either from their own savings, severance packages or career connections. But Payne-Taylor said they need to be careful.
"There's a lot of focus on finances, risk management," Payne-Taylor said. "I think most people take more time planning for vacation than thinking about what's next in retirement. You definitely need a plan. It's not something to take lightly."
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 38 percent of people 55 and older are working.
The reverse is happening in the high-level business sector.
These boomers are leaving high-salary jobs for more fulfilling human service careers in their 50s. And Jane Gagliardi, coordinator of Northern Essex Community College's human services program, is watching this reverse trend grow.
"They are making significant career changes from significantly higher paying jobs," Gagliardi said. "There's that, 'I always wanted to do this, but it didn't pay well,' and 'I was encouraged not to.' They've made their money. This is something they want to do with the last chunk of their career."
Bill O'Heaney, 52, of North Andover, is working as a counselor after graduating from NECC's drug and alcohol abuse certificate program in January. His past careers include chef, nonprofit manager and stay-at-home dad.
And O'Heaney said he plans to attend graduate school soon.
"There were a lot of people like me in my class: retired teachers, bankers, businessmen," he said. "I don't plan on retiring anytime soon. I have an 8-year-old."
For boomers seriously considering entrepreneurship or any career change, Payeur suggests sticking to something you love.
Payeur chose silk flowers because of his days working in a funeral home in the 1970s. He would watch hundreds of dollars worth of flowers being thrown out all the time. He considered it a costly waste and found silk flowers to be a cheaper, but just as lovely, alternative.
He's turned his philosophy into a 5-year-old business.
"Find something you love to do. Do as much as you want with it," Payeur added. "Retirement shouldn't be a time to be miserable."
Thinking of starting a business to pad your retirement?
r Assess your health.
r Look at your finances (retirement nest egg, savings, connections)
r Talk to a life coach
r Start a conversation with friends, co-workers and family
r Choose something you love to do
r Research your business idea thoroughly
r Assess the risk
r Try to set up a business before quitting your day job