When Tonja Perkins decided at mid-career to open a women's tennis apparel boutique on Frazier Avenue, she had a strong vision for the store's design and merchandise mix.

A former health care manager, Perkins' hobby was tennis. She had worked at a local tennis center for a time, and knew that Chattanooga has a sizable tennis community. Too, she believed that a downtown boutique specializing in tennis clothes would be a success.

"There was no outlet for women to buy these clothes," Perkins said.

"And the timing was right for me," she adds. "I'm passionate about sports and fashion so I decided to take the plunge."

Still, Perkins needed some help fleshing out her business plan. Specifically, she wished for someone to help her apply for a business license, request a Small Business Administration loan, and draft a reliable cash-flow projection. Now, well into its first year of operation, The Perfect Fit boutique, at 440 Cherokee Blvd., is off to a promising start and has expanded merchandise lines to include clothing for bicycling, running and yoga.

In part that's because of the advice Perkins got from a mentor provided through SCORE, a national network of more than 300 offices offering access to free mentoring from thousands of working and retired business professionals. Mentors — primarily former business owners, executives and managers — have real-world business experience to share.

Perkins said she was paired with a mentor who helped her navigate obstacles faced by every first-time business owner.

"He definitely helped me formulate figures — start-up costs and operating expenses — for the first year," she said.

SCORE staff also helped steer her to data on comparable boutiques in the area in order to fine-tune her cash-flow projections, which helped validate her business plan to lenders.

Chattanooga's SCORE office has been operational since 1968, making next year the 50th anniversary of the organization's presence here. SCORE, which originally stood for Service Corps of Retired Executives, provides seminars and no-cost mentoring. It's a non-profit organization in partnership with the United States Small Business Administration.

A roster of Chattanooga SCORE mentors includes engineers, attorneys, physicians, educators, accountants, marketing experts and business managers of many stripes.

Fred Weinhold, a retired TVA energy expert, has been volunteering for SCORE for 16 years, and is now the assistant district director for the statewide organization.

He says the most rewarding part of participation in SCORE is the face-to-fact contact with entrepreneurs and the rewards of watching businesses succeed. For example, he says he feels gratified every time he passes MiMi's Deli on Hixson Pike, one of his early SCORE partners.

"It's great to see clients that work hard and have capabilities," he said.

Clients can meet with mentors face-to-face throughout the start-up phase of their business and beyond. Others choose to have their questions asked and answered online. According to SCORE's national office, mentors provide advice on "every aspect of business planning, start-up, management and growth."

Pat Wente, the current chairperson of the Chattanooga chapter of SCORE, said she learned of the organization decades ago when she was a college student in the Midwest. SCORE leaders had come to her college campus to draft students to help them with a study about towns being hurt economically due to changing traffic patterns.

Wente, a former CFO for an agricultural cooperative, said she remembers resolving as a young person to get involved in with SCORE when she retired. Then, two years ago, she kept her promise and became active with Chattanooga SCORE. She said she picked Chattanooga to relocate to, in part, because it had a SCORE chapter.

Wente said she would like to grow the chapter here from 19 to at least 25 mentors, and to recruit mentors to reflect more age, gender and race diversity. She noted that local clients have online access to the entire national network of 10,000 SCORE volunteers and can sometimes speak to them through teleconferencing.

SCORE volunteers stress that they offer advice, but do not do any actual work for clients. For example, the mentors steer clients to resources, but do not provide grants, loans, nor accounting or legal services.

While SCORE offers a variety of start-up services, its volunteers also offer spot advice to emerging businesses or non-profits that simply have a business-related question. For instance, an entrepreneur might need to bounce a marketing plan or a website design off a business expert, Wente said.

Local businesses that have recently reached out to SCORE for help include an environmentally-focused home inspection company, a pet grooming business, a free-lance photography start-up and an interior design studio.

Wente said she helped a hair salon owner in St. Elmo who was laboring to make her business profitable after seven years of operation. Upon close inspection, Wente determined that the business owner had priced her services too low and had failed to fill new work stations she'd built earlier to grow the business.

"I touched base with her a couple of months ago, and she says, 'I raised my prices and nobody laughed, and I added extra people. Now I'm making a profit.'

"What's fun is when you see the light bulb come on when they are working on something complex," Wente said.

For her part, Perkins, the owner of the Northshore sports apparel store, says of her business, "So far, so good. I'm still clawing."