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Vet’s business includes $18M flag contract

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Paul K. Visarraga traces the origins of his business to 1992, when he fell through a ceiling after the roof he was standing on gave way.

Visarraga was repairing a broken water pipe on his home, and the consequences of the fall were severe: a traumatic brain injury and the end of his military career as an active duty member of the Army National Guard.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” said Visarraga, who spent eight months recovering from his injury at the VA hospital in El Paso.

Fast-forward to today: Visarraga is the owner and sole employee of A2Z Promo Zone, a promotional products business he runs out of his home in Santa Fe. He and his company are the recipients of a five-year, $18 million federal contract with the Department of Veterans Affairs to supply more than 10,000 American flags a month (through subcontractors) for military funerals across the country.

He said he takes great pride in working with an organization that supports veterans.

“It’s an honor,” he said. “There’s something about it that just feels right.”

Visarraga attributes his success to resources aimed at the veteran community. After he completed his recovery in Texas, he went through the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program, which connects disabled veterans with services to help them live and work independently. That, in turn, led him to begin taking classes in small business administration. When a friend of his with a T-shirt printing company suggested he begin an embroidery business, Visarraga reached back out to the VA, which connected him with the funds to purchase an embroidery machine in 2000.

With the help of mentors at New Mexico’s Procurement Technical Assistance Program, Visarraga quickly found himself the recipient of several federal contracts. At least 3 percent of all federal contracts government-wide must be awarded to small businesses owned and controlled by service-disabled vets, and Visarraga found that several agencies were eager to work with him.

“Suddenly, I had this great business and four employees,” he said.

Visarraga had to lay off his employees and file for bankruptcy in 2009 in the midst of the recession, but he used his one remaining embroidery machine to start a new business, which he sold in 2010. He was still doing some work with promotional products in 2012 when he got a call from a subcontractor looking to partner with a disabled veteran to bid on the VA’s interment flag contract.

“After we won, we got a lot of push back from some of the bigger companies that didn’t think a small operation could do it,” he said. “But we’ve shown that’s not the case.”

Though the flag contract ends next year, Visarraga said he’s not concerned about the future of his business. For one thing, he believes his track record with the VA will allow him to continue working with the agency in some form. His promotional products business is also doing well, thanks in part to several contracts with the state.

Then there are the lessons he’s learned as a result of his 16 years as a small business owner, which he believes will continue to allow him to work independently for the foreseeable future. Visarraga said he hopes other disabled veterans will hear his story and use the same resources that have allowed him to support himself since his injury.

“There’s a lot of opportunity out there, especially for veterans,” he said. “I started out with nothing in my pocket. But I never gave up.”