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Battery store revives career

Roy Abbate is selling batteries-and recharging his career.

He is the proprietor of the first Batteries Plus store in South Jersey, a provider of batteries that power talking books for children, electronic voice boxes and keyless entry locks at hotels.

"We sell lots of batteries for hearing aids to nursing homes," he said. "We also rebuild batteries, as well as sell the batteries most people are familiar with, batteries for flashlights, cell phones and cameras."

For 32 years, Abbate, of Cherry Hill, worked at the Northeast office for Dionex Corp., a Chicago-based analytical instruments company. He was managing the branch in Mount Laurel when the company decided to close it last year.

Abbate was 53 and drained from a recent divorce. To try to get back on the career path, he began attending meetings of the Cherry Hill Professional Service Group, where managers and professionals seeking work share skills and experiences.

He learned about a state-sponsored program for entrepreneurs and enrolled in classes.

"As an employee, I was always taken care of with a good salary and I didn't want to walk away from that," he recalled. "But starting my own business was always my dream."

Abbate hired a consultant to identify franchises that would be a good fit with his background in chemistry. One was Batteries Plus, a 290-store operation founded in 1988 and recently named to the Wall Street Journal's list of top 25 performing franchises.

He talked things over with his three grown children, who all supported the idea.

"My daughter said, "Dad, you built it up once. You can do it again,' " he recalled.

Abbate leveraged his 401(k) plan to obtain the $500,000 needed to capitalize the business. He hired John Bader, a salesman from Voorhees who had been downsized after more than 30 years on the job, to be his general manager of commercial sales.

The two men met at the Cherry Hill group.

"I felt as if I had been given a second chance," Abbate said. "I think other people deserve a second chance, too."

The team spent several months building the commercial side of the company, which supplies businesses, schools and other operations with such products as batteries that power emergency exit signs. Abbate is further building the brand by sponsoring the Riversharks, Camden's minor league baseball team.

This week, Batteries Plus opened its storefront in the West Marine shopping center on Route 73 here.

"We need a storefront for profile, a place to educate consumers," he said.

On Wednesday, clerk Hector Jimanez lined up boxes containing $95 DeWalt batteries, used to power drills and table saws, and Werker batteries that juice wheelchairs and scooters. Among the 12,000 available items are chunky motorcycle batteries, tiny 12-volt alkaline cylinders that fit inside the fobs of car keys and squat, husky batteries that propel commercial floor buffers.

"We call them scrubbers," Abbate said.

The business also offers drive-by checks for car batteries, watch battery replacement and free battery recycling.

Bill Baehr of Maple Shade, who services elevators, came into the store looking for replacements for the batteries that power a label maker he uses to identify wires.

"I have been waiting for weeks for the store to open," he said. "We go through batteries like crazy."

Abbate suggested Baehr recondition the batteries in the label maker's power pack. The store manager gave him a preliminary estimate of $25.

"That will save almost 100 bucks," Baehr said. "Let's do it."

Abbate said it will take 12 to 18 months for the business to turn a profit. He plans to open two more stores in the area within the next five years.

"It's almost a year to the day since I lost my job," he said. "I look toward the future and I feel good again."