VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — When Patrick Kelly recently retired from the Air Force after nearly 24 years of service, he knew he wanted to go into business. He liked the idea of owning a franchise. He'd be part of a team, just as he was in the military, and get "a complete package, so I didn't have to put things together by myself."
Kelly found an IT company that appealed to him, CMIT Solutions Inc. But he worried about the five-digit asking price.
Along came Andrew Twynham, a franchisee in Atlanta about to leave CMIT for another company.
Twynham didn't know Kelly. But he'd heard about his application and decided, with CMIT's approval, to give Kelly his franchise - free of charge - in honor of Kelly's service. That saved the veteran $75,000.
CMIT sealed the deal by allowing Kelly to operate the franchise in Virginia Beach, where he and his family have lived since 2009.
"I'm very grateful," said Kelly, who launched CMIT's first local franchise last month. "What better gift than the ability to create a new career for yourself?"
Twynham, now head of global customer support for North America at Siemens Enterprise Communications in Dallas, couldn't be reached this week. But last week, he provided a copy of a videotaped speech he gave at CMIT's annual convention in April.
"I have traveled extensively," said Twynham, who was born in Canada, "and the patriotism towards our servicemen and women has always amazed me and gave me reason to be proud. I believe, however, that more can be done to support our troops, and most of that support needs to happen after they come home."
Matt Haller, a spokesman for the International Franchise Association in Washington, which has nearly 15,000 members, said it's not unusual for franchisers to offer franchises at a discounted rate or for free to veterans. But for a franchisee to donate a franchise - and to someone he's never met?
"I've never heard of this in my time in the industry," Haller said. "It's great to hear - maybe groundbreaking."
Kelly, a 43-year-old native of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., made the rank of captain and specialized in combat communications. He served in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and was awarded a Purple Heart after he was shot in the leg in a terrorist attack in Honduras in 1990.
He led teams of airmen in Iraq and prepared overseas airfields for exercises and deployments. And he gained plenty of experience with computers. Which is why he felt instantly comfortable with CMIT's menu of services for small businesses. Among other things, it provides a help desk and maintains and monitors customers' IT systems.
"I said, 'I did all of that,' " Kelly recalled. "I ran a help desk. I managed 130 IT technicians."
Jeff Connally, the president and CEO of CMIT, based in Austin, Texas, was impressed with Kelly. "He's going to be outrageously successful," Connally said this week.
He planned to offer Kelly CMIT's standard 20 percent discount for veterans. Then Twynham approached Connally with his idea. "He said, 'Life has been good to me,' " Connally said. " 'I've flourished in America. I'd like to gift my territory to somebody who is coming out of the service.' "
Kelly was the obvious candidate. But he had hoped to stay in Virginia Beach. So Connally transferred Twynham's clients to other Atlanta-area franchisees and moved the franchise to the Beach.
"We were sold on Patrick," Connally said. "That drove it more than the fact that we always wanted to get into Virginia Beach."
The moment the deal was unveiled to Kelly "was like Christmas and 12 other holidays all wrapped up together," Connally said.
Kelly was on the phone with the CEO in March, assuming it was another step in the application process. To his surprise, Twynham came on the line and made him the offer. "I probably stood there for a full minute," Kelly said. "I don't think I said anything."
Eventually, he accepted.
His CMIT (short for Completely Managed Information Technology) franchise, based in an office near Town Center, is a bit more than 1 month old. Kelly's strategy so far: "Network, network, network."
During a recent interview, he fished out the last three business cards from the batch he had ordered. Kelly had already distributed 497 of them.
In the past two weeks, Kelly hired his first two part-time technicians. He also bagged his first service contract. And Thursday he made his first hardware delivery to a client, The Abbate Practice, an insurance agency at the Beach.
Kelly has long dreamed of being a businessman. He has not been disappointed. His animated chatter about CMIT accompanies him home. His wife, Lisa Jo, tells him, "You're having so much fun."
One day, he hopes to meet Twynham.
When he does, Kelly said, he'll give his benefactor "a grateful thank-you. It was a gift that gave me the freedom to pursue my American dream."