Veterans blaze path to owning businesses

By APRIL DUDASH | The Fayetteville Observer | Published: February 17, 2013

Two paths are traditionally stressed for service members transitioning from the military - either find a civilian job or pursue a college degree.

But as more local resources are being devoted to entrepreneurial training, veterans have a solid third path. They can own their own businesses.

U.S. military veterans own 2.4 million businesses, or nearly 1 in 10 of all businesses in the U.S., according to the Small Business Administration. They employ 5.8 million people and generate $1.2 trillion in receipts.

Combine that economy-boosting power with more service members transitioning due to military drawbacks, and installations and universities are taking notice. This year, the Obama Administration gave the Small Business Administration's "Boots to Business" entrepreneur program $7 million to expand. As the Army pilot starts in March, Fort Bragg already is acting as a testing ground for the initiative.

In addition, colleges and Fort Bragg offer an array of services for military members - from guiding the development of a feasible business plan to helping them shift to a different work culture than what they're accustomed to.

At Fayetteville State University last week, about 20 veterans attended a Veteran Entrepreneur Boot Camp. Participants transformed their ideas into solid business plans with the help of small business experts, financial planners and successful veteran business owners.

Ed Sullivan is preparing for entrepreneurship. He's a former Navy helicopter pilot who delved into the pharmaceutical and biotech industries after serving. He worked for a company that eventually downsized and offered him severance. Now he's looking forward to his third career, mentoring wounded vets as a sales and marketing consultant.

"I loved my job but hated working for the man," Sullivan said. "I want to be in control of my own destiny."

Robert Rehder, who runs the boot camp and serves as director of FSU's Veterans Business Outreach Center, currently mentors 257 clients. His office has reviewed more than 830 business plans.

Rehder was in the Navy and went to work in the maritime shipping business after his service.

This is his fourth Entrepreneur Boot Camp, which has served 80 graduates with the center's Small Business Administration grant. He said he expects 30 percent of the boot camp's graduates to immediately start a small business.

Soon, the center will find out if it will receive another grant to offer entrepreneurial classes to wounded service members.

But for now, Rehder is helping vets focus their business plans.

"At least half of them don't work, will never work," Rehder said. "We try to move them into a niche in the market that will work."

Overcoming obstacles

While soldiers have big dreams for their own businesses, they're facing other obstacles, including a tough economy and oversaturated markets. Plus, banks still aren't willing to lend to startups.

In 2012, 650,000 businesses started up in the United States, Rehder said in his presentation. Only 210,000 are expected to remain in business after three years.

"Most overpromise and under deliver, and that will kill you faster than you can shake a stick," Rehder said.

Marty Cayton, director of the Methodist University Center for Entrepreneurship, recently spoke at a Life After the Military panel hosted by the Fayetteville Regional Chamber. Cayton, also a Navy veteran, works as president of communications for a company called Amerizon Wireless.

"There has been an opportunity in entrepreneurship like there has never been before," Cayton said.

The baby boomer generation is reaching retirement age, and almost 10 million businesses will be transitioning over the next decade, he said.

He also said the economic downturn in 2008 and layoffs brought entrepreneurship to the forefront.

"What really drives this nation's economy is small business and entrepreneurs," Cayton said.

Tamara Bryant with the Small Business Center at Fayetteville Technical Community College teaches business planning. She has seen more veterans attend her classes. Part of the process is matching their military skillset with an idea for a civilian business and helping service members make the transition from a culture built on military orders.

"You are that go-to person," she said of veteran entrepreneurs. "You are the one that makes that decision. That's one challenge for them, is changing their mindset."

Transition planning

Soldiers are now required to start transition planning at least 12 months prior to leaving the military. At five months, they have to decide whether they will pursue a job, school or starting a business.

Bill McMillian, the transition services manager at Fort Bragg's Army Career and Alumni Program, is in charge of shaping the new entrepreneur track for soldiers at the installation. McMillian said said they're "at the birth stage" of implementation.

Soldiers can take part in Boots to Business, a two-day entrepreneur class on Fort Bragg that is completed with an 8-week online course.

More than 40 soldiers took the first course in January, and McMillian has seen ideas range from motorcycle maintenance to computer repair.

Bragg also is offering free facility manager classes to 120 soldiers at a time.

McMillian said they are working to create a network of entrepreneurs who will help each other start their businesses.

"You're like how you were in the military," he said. "You're depending on members of the team to help you be successful."

Sharing dreams

FSU's boot camp ended this week with students sharing their entrepreneurial dreams with the class.

Linda Wilkins-Daniels, a former airman from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, wants to start A New Hope, an HIV case management business. Her cousin died alone of AIDS because of misperceptions about the disease.

"I didn't go into it thinking I'm going to make some money," Wilkins-Daniels said. "I just love helping people."

For Matthew Locklear, a former Army policeman, it's a family affair. He will one day take over and expand his father's construction business in Fairmont.

"It's in my genes," he said. "... Instead of working 60 hours a week for somebody, I'd rather be working for myself."

Jintana Cutno-Wiggins graduated from the Entrepreneur Boot Camp a year ago. Since then, she's turned her child care business into a children's exhibition center, Intrigue, in Spring Lake. She and her husband, retired Staff Sgt. Cleveland Wiggins of the 82nd Airborne Division, went into the nonprofit business together to target under served and special needs children in disadvantaged areas.

Cutno-Wiggins said the boot camp helped their ideas become reality.

"He's all in it with me," she said of her husband. "... He sees that there's a niche also. There's a need in this community."

Retired Staff Sgt. Brad M. Lang, who was a technician with 2nd Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, stands in his workshop in Jacksonville, N.C., Oct. 26, 2012. Lang lost both of his legs when an improvised explosive device detonated in Afghanistan in 2011 and now runs his own business.


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