Written by Eliza LaJoie
With former members of the military leading 2.4 million companies, or nine percent of all American business, the impact of veterans in entrepreneurship is clear. Boasting specialized skills and robust professional networks, veterans in the business world seem particularly driven to be their own boss: They are 45 percent more likely to be self-employed than non-veterans, according to a Small Business Administration study. But while this statistic may conjure images of fiercely independent leaders striking off on their own, some of the most successful veteran CEOs have in fact found that the path to success is anything but solitary.
The 2015 Inner City 100, the definitive ranking of America’s fastest-growing urban businesses, offers a glimpse into veteran firms propelled by close relationships both internal and external. Data and interviews with the 12 veteran CEOs on the 2015 list show the key role that military networks have played in these businesses’ civilian success. They are able to draw credibility and customers from these relationships, and are dedicated to preserving them. When ICIC asked these CEOs to cite the biggest contributor to their company’s rapid growth, strong business networks and high client retention were among the top responses.
Relationships are also essential from an internal perspective, especially in pursuit of the single most frequently cited driver of these businesses’ growth: skilled employees. The veteran CEOs lead large teams – 47 full-time employees on average – and often find the right combination of specialized skills and team spirit in employees who are also veterans. As a result, two-thirds have instituted a formal veteran-hiring program. Once the team is in place, the companies remain dedicated to supporting employees through personal struggles and professional growth. Informal mentoring relationships are common, and 83 percent of the firms offer professional development programs.
Speaking on Veterans Day 2015, ICIC CEO Steve Grossman lauded veteran-led companies for their ability to impact the lives of their communities along with the lives of their staff:
“Today, we honor those veterans who through their hard work, creativity and entrepreneurship are helping to revitalize America’s inner cities and create growing numbers of good-paying jobs,” Grossman said.
Shared experiences across generations
At Hoffman Management and Construction in Los Angeles, CA, an intergenerational support network sets veteran employees up for success. The firm is led by Henry Hoffman, a Vietnam veteran, and his son Erik Hoffman, who served in Kosovo.
This joint leadership creates an atmosphere where multiple generations are encouraged to learn from one another. Erik Hoffman observed, “We have the experience of my parents’ generation, and we have the energy and technological understanding of the next generation.”
In this close-knit context, the Hoffmans emphasize the importance of mental and physical self-care among their staff, 20 percent of whom are fellow veterans. With the challenges of readjusting to civilian life still vivid in their minds, Erik Hoffman and other longtime staffers support their younger colleagues with everything from help navigating the GI Bill to referrals for mental health services.
“If [a veteran employee] hits a roadblock, I’ve been down that road. My father’s been down that road, and so have others at the office – we can help each other. We know and respect what they’ve been through.”
Rather than seeing these struggles as a disadvantage, Hoffman feels that veterans are ideal entrepreneurs because they are used to facing personal and professional challenges, and have confidence in their ability to prevail.
If you’re a veteran “you have fight in you,” Hoffman said. “It’s a desire to compete and finish strong.”
Unique skill sets, unique communities
For Michael Brittain, CEO of Houston-based Selrico Communications, military training gives employees an ideal combination of individuality and conformity.
Adherence to a strict set of safety rules is essential for the Selrico team, which installs and maintains fiber-optic cables. A former member of the Texas National Guard, Brittain has found that standardization of processes keeps his team safe while working on busy streets and scaling telephone poles. He noted that the military teaches the importance of conformity to standards, but also the understanding that every job is unique. As a result, Brittain and his business partner, a Navy veteran, have recruited a staff that is 50 percent veterans.
The closeness stemming from shared military experiences is further enhanced by the nature of Selrico’s work, which often requires employees to spend long hours together in a van at a worksite. Brittain noted that the family atmosphere also extends to support of young staff, veterans or not, through personal struggles and growth
“We all take part in grooming these guys to become who they will be,” Brittain said.
Military networks, civilian success
From its origin as an idea tossed around in the officers’ mess hall aboard the USS John F. Kennedy, Quality Innovative Solutions has always been a business powered by the Navy. CEO Bobby Mullins met his co-founder through their work aboard Navy ships, and when he retired from military service, they launched a technical services firm that leveraged their specialized engineering skills and created jobs for fellow veterans.
Based in Oxnard, CA, Quality Innovative Solutions now employs over 80 full-time workers, two-thirds of whom are former members of the military. Their primary customer is the federal government, allowing Mullins and his co-founder to sustain the relationships they built during their service. And in a business where highly complex government projects often exceed the scope of a single business, Mullins collaborates with other veteran-owned companies whenever possible.
He believes that the military instills a methodical mindset perfectly suited to entrepreneurship: No matter the size of a challenge, it can be conquered one step at a time.
“[Running a business] is like eating an elephant, and you eat an elephant one bite at a time,” he said.
“We leave no one behind”
Carlos Lopez served for 20 years in the Marines before becoming CEO of Caduceus Healthcare, an Inner City 100 winner located in Atlanta, GA. A staffing firm with 15 percent veteran employees, Caduceus thrives at the confluence of military and civilian cultures, with veteran and non-veteran staff learning from one another.
Lopez finds that in a civilian office, veterans bring key advantages including straightforward communication, which is a particular asset in the world of human capital. Caduceus depends on the clear transmission of feedback between clients, temporary workers and the firm itself, and Lopez says that veterans generally provide a model for respectful, honest communication: “They don’t sugarcoat,” he said.
Like his Inner City 100 peers, Lopez said the presence of more veterans fostered a team- and mentoring-oriented environment for all employees. He noted that while some staffers might be reluctant to act as a mentor, seeing a rising new employee as a potential threat to their own job security, veterans are accustomed to training and mentoring processes, and their openness allows all staffers to learn from one another. As CEO, Lopez publically recognizes those who are most dedicated to mentoring and training others, to reinforce the belief that when a new employee improves, the whole company benefits.
“We look out for each other, and we leave no one behind,” he said of his staff.