CRAWFORD, Texas -- As 16 wounded veterans wheeled to the finish Friday at the George W. Bush Institute's Warrior 100K mountain bike ride, one of those cheering in the crowd was Derek Blake.
Blake, a vice president at Irving-based La Quinta Inns & Suites, has become a fixture at the institute's military service events.
That's because the annual bike ride and, in the fall, the Warrior Open golf tournament -- celebrations of perseverance that honor post-9/11 veterans -- are starting to produce change well beyond the trails and tee boxes.
La Quinta's participation has caused the company to overhaul its strategy for hiring veterans and their spouses and fine-tune its outreach to the military community and the nonprofits that support it. The result, it says, is the start of an overall culture change.
La Quinta, with more than 800 hotels and a workforce of around 8,000, is hiring more military employees, especially for career-oriented positions.
It's getting positive customer feedback for efforts to recognize military guests. And it's seeing lower turnover rates for employees of all sorts.
For George W. Bush, who rode alongside the wounded veterans for the three-day event that ended Saturday, that's the sort of progress he's been pushing for since he started the bike ride and golf tournament in 2011.
"This is the use of a platform to inspire," the former president said. "Inspire employers. Inspire people who would be employed. Inspire fellow citizens who think, 'Oh, my life is so miserable.'"
In 2012, La Quinta rolled out a six-planked military initiative that focused on hiring, community outreach and other categories. The company first connected with the Bush Institute later that year, ahead of the golf tournament.
The relationship then was pretty simple.
The company's corporate headquarters are a couple of miles from Las Colinas Country Club, which hosts the Warrior Open. The hotel chain thought it could help house folks coming in for the tournament and lend a hand with Bush Institute events down the road.
Then Blake went to the golf tournament and saw the veterans in action.
He traveled to Bush's Crawford ranch to take in the Warrior 100K bike ride. He brought other La Quinta executives, including chief operating officer Angelo Lombardi, to institute wounded warrior events.
Then everything started to change.
"As the company embarked on our military initiative, I supported it conceptually," Lombardi said. "I supported it philosophically. And I would've argued at the time that I supported it emotionally.
"But you don't realize what it is until you get a bigger taste of it. And being involved with the Bush Center ... was critical."
Every year, the Warrior 100K and the Warrior Open reveal stories of great courage and sacrifice. Few rival that of retired Marine Staff Sgt. Tim Brown.
The native Texan had both legs and his right arm amputated after he was injured by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2011.
But he still rides, on a custom-made, three-wheeled mountain bike that he propels, steers and brakes essentially with one arm.
During this weekend's ride, he kept pace by furiously pumping his left arm and a prosthesis attached to what remains of his right. On the course's trickier spots, a team of six or so volunteers would help by guiding him around obstacles and pushing him up hills.
"The teamwork involved, the camaraderie involved, it's just wonderful," Bush said.
For La Quinta, the most immediate impact of involvement with the bike ride and golf tournament may have been simply gaining a better understanding of military culture. No one on the hotel chain's executive team has a military background. So they didn't know small things, like the Air Force has bases and the Army has posts. But they also didn't fully grasp major things, like the challenges of being a military spouse.
The company hired as an adviser Cheryl Endres, whose husband was the first director of the Bush Institute's military service initiative. It's now teaming up with the Dallas-based Center for Brain Health to combat post-traumatic stress disorder among military spouses.
It's rolled out a small way to recognize veterans and their families when they check into a La Quinta. If the hotel knows about their background, the guest is handed a keycard holder that says, "Thank You for Your Service."
That modest gesture, the company says, has helped produce a big boost in customer loyalty among such guests.
The biggest push has been in La Quinta's efforts to hire more men and women with a military background.
At last year's Warrior Open, Lombardi and Blake ran the company's plan by retired Marine Gen. Peter Pace, who's involved with the Bush Institute. Pace complemented their work, but also issued a challenge:
"They don't need just jobs," Lombardi recalled the general saying. "They need careers."
So La Quinta started looking for veterans and military spouses with management potential.
Managers were asked to take photos with military hires and write what they'd learned about them as individuals. The company sharpened its focus on how military skills might translate to hotel work.
And the hotel chain developed a program to reward managers for making progress in military hiring, particularly for career-oriented jobs.
La Quinta set a goal this year to hire 430 employees with military backgrounds -- 16 of them in career-oriented positions. So far, it's hired 116 such employees -- 23 of them in career-track positions.
No one doubts that such efforts have patriotic merit. But is there a business case to be made in having such a focus on veterans, as Bush and others have argued?
Yes, La Quinta officials said.
"It's the right thing to do, period," Blake said. "But it's also the smart thing to do."
Not that many years ago, the company's yearly turnover rate for general managers was 45 percent. La Quinta worked hard to get it down to 20 percent. Focusing on military hires has helped cut it to 16 percent.
Comparable gains have been achieved in the turnover rate among hourly employees -- a rate that's traditionally high in the hospitality industry.
La Quinta's willingness to release figures on the results of its outreach to veterans might be a measure of progress in and of itself.
Retired Army Col. Miguel Howe, director of the Bush Institute's military service initiative, said a big impediment to getting more businesses on board has been a lack of quantitative evidence that reaching out to veterans makes a difference. Companies are either reluctant to disclose internal numbers or wary of being perceived as exploiting veterans.
Howe said La Quinta's experience could have ramifications well beyond its hotels.
"This is really the key," he said.