Let’s hear it for Jim Hughes

Jim Hughes sits among mounds of papers and boxes at his insurance agency in Swampscott.

To call Jim Hughes a Swampscott institution is an understatement: After 57 years as a local businessman, Hughes retired on May 30. Born in Brockton but practically a lifelong Swampscott resident, Hughes personifies the rock-solid, small town merchant who helps defines Main Streets across America.

Described with love by his daughter, Kristin, as “a bit of a workaholic,” Hughes understands the important role a local insurance man plays in the lives of neighbors and friends. Bad things happen, accidents and even tragedies occur, and insurance makes the difference between surviving and moving on and floundering.

Hughes and dozens of other local businessmen and women who have been town constants for decades also understand why small business matters in towns like Swampscott. The heart and soul of a little community in many ways is defined by its mom and pop stores and storefront, walk-in businesses where employees know their customers by the first name and the conversation centers on family before it turns to business.

Hughes deserves a wonderful retirement centered on family and fun. But here’s hoping his talents, his institutional knowledge and experience can be harnessed going forward to provide invaluable guidance and advice to new entrepreneurs.

Opening a business is a courageous challenge and there are basic reasons why well-intentioned people with good ideas close up shop after a few months or a year. Not all great cooks are good business people. Not all talented hairdressers can manage employees or balance the books.

Hughes and small business owners like him survived because they mastered the precarious balancing act involved in staying alive as a pint-sized entrepreneur. They learned to realistically evaluate risk, hard work, and the realities of business financing.

Small businesses are America’s lifeblood and an entryway into society for new arrivals to this country as well as people who learn a trade or hold a newly-minted diploma. But great ideas and freshly-acquired talents and degrees don’t guarantee business success.

The people who rent storefronts and, eventually, buy commercial real estate in towns like Swampscott help shape and define a town’s character and determine if a small town has an economically-viable business sector or Main Street. America is dotted with small towns where an exodus of talented young people created an economic vacuum that triggered the town’s decline.

Swampscott is in no danger of entering an economic dead zone, but the talents of Jim Hughes and other retired businesspeople can be harnessed to provide a mentorship pool to young entrepreneurs. The SCORE program in Lynn already provides executive coaching to people launching small businesses and the SCORE concept can be expanded and tailored to small town businesses.

A new career awaits Jim Hughes after the last glass is raised at his retirement party. He has given plenty to Swampscott and he has a reservoir of talents to share with business owners following in his footsteps.

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