This week, Al Cothern watched as laid-off workers streamed out of Lehman Brothers' headquarters in midtown Manhattan with boxes in hand, and his heart went out to them.
Cothern spent 11 years working for a national subprime mortgage lender as a senior vice president and had visions of some day becoming an executive vice president before retiring from the world of finance.
It didn't quite work out that way. He was laid off from his job a year ago this week.
"It's like a slow chain of dominos falling," Cothern said, referring to the bloodbath of lost jobs in the financial sector.
"I was worried when I lost my job, but I saw it as an opportunity to make a change and get away from the things that were bothering me throughout my career, mainly the ups and downs of the markets," he explained.
And boy, did he make a change.
Cothern became the proud owner of a franchise, and now that he has tasted the life of a small business owner he may never go back to working for a company.
About 45 days after he was laid off he started the process to purchase a FASTSIGNS, a signs and graphics franchise. He did his homework, attending a franchising conference and researching a host of franchisors.
In April, Cothern opened the doors on his franchise in West Palm Beach, Fla., and so far the company is generating the sales he initially expected, although, he admits the bad economy in Florida has been challenging.
A franchise is a good option for someone who doesn't want to start a company from the ground up and could use a bit of hand-holding from the franchisor when it comes to building a business.
It has definitely been an education for Cothern.
"I have learned a great deal about the small business world that I never knew about before. People who work in the corporate world, like I had for my whole career, are insulated from a lot of things they don't even know about. There aren't dedicated departments like legal, accounting, HR and IT to help anymore. Now, it's all my responsibility -- and if I need help from a professional, I have to pay for it."
"Another big difference for me, changing from the financial services business to the sign and graphic business, is the change from selling a non-tangible product to a tangible one. For example, in financial services we competed on the basis of service -- responsiveness, speed, flexibility to name a few specific examples -- and terms and rates, for example. But with a tangible product it becomes critical that we produce a quality product. It requires us to be better listeners up-front to ensure we understand what the customer wants, and it requires us to be better managers to ensure we produce a quality product."
Here's Cothern's advice to those of you who have just lost a job in the financial industry:
"Immediately cut back on expenses," he advises, adding that he sold his boat and got rid of extras like satellite radio after he was handed a pink slip.
Cothern also suggests that people figure out fast if there really are other opportunities in finance, and if not, look for something new.
"I have associates who after a year are still trying to replace that $200,000 salary and a corner office," he explained. "You just have to open and broaden your horizons."