Air Force veteran J.D. Morgan saw all kinds of duty as a criminal investigator, SWAT team member and bodyguard to four-star generals on high-profile international missions. Fellow Air Force vet Chris Sweetin was a flight engineer on helicopters flying combat rescue operations in places he can’t discuss.
Last year, the pair started 3D Security & Training Solutions, training security guards for a major corporate client, teaching corporate clients how to respond to incidents of workplace violence and conducting personal safety and concealed weapon classes.
“This is Chris’ and my life,” Morgan said. He said there are plenty of people who think they can run a security training business, but they lack the depth of training and experience he and Sweetin gained in the military.
“We didn’t just read a book on how to do this,” Morgan said, “We’ve lived it.”
While many recent veterans have had difficulty making the transition to civilian life – Labor Department figures showed unemployment stood at 7.2 percent among veterans in November 2014 compared to 5.8 percent for the general population – some, like Morgan, Sweetin and others, are taking advantage of programs aimed at helping them build their own businesses. They also are leveraging the skills and work habits they picked up in the military.
Former Air Force logistics officer Gary Peterson found his entrepreneurial niche with One Community Auto selling used cars and refurbishing vehicles donated to charities. He also has a growing business supplying clunker cars to military installations – White Sands Missile Range, Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida – that use them for target practice.
Peterson uses his logistics experience daily arranging transportation for his vehicles. But that isn’t the most valuable skill he learned in a career that included three tours in Iraq.
“What really helped was the military discipline, the teamwork,” Peterson said, “Starting a business, you’re working long hours. You have to get the mission accomplished. You have to know when to reach out for help. That’s the kind of thing I use every day to go out there and tackle jobs.”
U.S. Army veteran Steve Gayer followed a different path. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2004 and worked in several civilian jobs in health care administration before deciding to take the entrepreneurial leap.
Toward the end of his Army career, Gayer was at Fort Drum in upper New York state in charge of processing thousands of troops heading for deployment in Afghanistan.
Gayer recently joined his wife’s bookkeeping business, adding his skills as a consultant for government contracting work. He credits his military experience with being able to analyze all aspects of a contract.
“Some clients are totally focused on one aspect of a project, but you have to take in the whole picture; finances, looking at competition among vendors, marketing. I try to look at everything that affects the business,” Gayer said.
Making the transition
Leaving the highly structured military life for the civilian world can be daunting even for seasoned combat veterans, but there are resources out there. Transition programs offer advice on pursuing work, school and business opportunities.
For those fired by the entrepreneurial spirit, the Veterans Business Outreach Center in Albuquerque offers an array of free advisory services that build on the skills and expertise they learned in the service.
“They have a chance to see the qualities the military has helped them develop in themselves and see how that parallels the qualities a person needs to go into business,” said retired U.S. Marine Col. Joseph Long, the VBOC director.
And there are a lot of parallels: drive, punctuality and a strong work ethic, to name a few, Long said.
Still, Gayer, Peterson, Morgan and Sweetin all experienced challenges in shifting from the military culture to the civilian world.
“In the military, things are cut and dried. It’s black and white,” Morgan said, “Whereas, in the civilian world, there’s so many governing rules that change daily, local or federal.”
Peterson talked about losing the structure of the military life.
“In the military, you know where everything is. The military runs your life. When you get out, you have to use the skills you have,” he said. “You’re kind of pushed out of the nest like a bird.”
Gayer noticed there was less emphasis on training for supervisors in civilian corporations, which he felt led to a lack of accountability.
“Leaders need to be there to lead,” Gayer said.
Boots to Business
Before starting their businesses, Gayer, Peterson, Morgan and Sweetin took advantage of the Boots to Business course VBOC offers. The two-day program helps would-be entrepreneurs understand how their military experience could translate into business ownership and to determine whether they have a viable business concept. It also covers topics such as financing and creating business plans, Long said.
He said nearly 400 service men and women have participated in 26 Boots to Business courses held at military facilities in New Mexico since 2013. About 20 participants have gone on to start their own businesses.
Air Force retiree Rich Coffel is the center’s business counselor. He provides ongoing support to business owners, advising them on market research and crafting business plans.
“It (the help) doesn’t stop when you get your company going. They stay with you,” Morgan said.
Coffel put them in touch with a local Small Business Development Center, which reviewed their business plans.
Morgan, Sweetin and Peterson also completed the eight-week online Syracuse University business course VBOC offers.
“It’s like a mini-MBA,” Coffel said.
The Albuquerque VBOC is one of 15 similar facilities nationwide funded through Small Business Administration grants that provide business startup advice to veterans.
“I had no clue these resources were available out there until I started digging,” said Gayer, who retired several years before the other veterans.
Gayer took the Boots to Business program, and received counseling on how to land federal, state and local government contracts from Procurement Technical Assistance Adviser Adolfo Vasquez.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to go to the people who have done it for years and years,” Gayer said.
Vasquez gained his expertise as a U.S. Army procurement and contracting officer. He helps clients register with the System for Award Management, a prerequisite for being able to bid on government contracts. He works with the Small Business Development Center to help them arrange lines of credit and bonding, which are also required.
Long’s center also works with local chambers of commerce and Wells Fargo to hold business seminars in communities throughout the state.
He said they just received a new, $200,000 SBA grant to continue their work, which includes offering the two-day program to veterans who have been out of the service for several years through Boots to Business: Re-Boot.
Another project Long and Coffel plan to launch soon in collaboration with the American Indian Chamber of Commerce is to bring the Boots to Business program to Native American pueblos and reservations.
Other organizations also provide support for entrepreneurs who are former military. WESST, the nonprofit small business development and training organization, opened a co-working space for veterans and active military individuals who want to start businesses.
The suite has 15 “briefcase-ready” cubicle work stations equipped with desktop computers, high-speed Internet access and printing capability. Participants pay $30 for a two-hour time slot or $200 for up to 36 hours a month.
Co-working participants can also use meeting and break rooms in the WESST building, as well as the nonprofit’s address. They also have access to the nonprofit’s business consultants and advisers, who provide expertise on management, sales and marketing, said Russell Combs, managing director of the WESST enterprise center.