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How veteran business owners are using their military crisis skills during the pandemic

Key Points
  • There are 2.5 million veteran-owned small businesses in America, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • They employ more than 5 million workers and contribute over $1 trillion to the U.S. economy.
  • Today these small business owners say they are using their military skills to steer their organizations through the coronavirus pandemic.
  • They offer important leadership lessons for Main Street.
PuroClean restoration specialists do deep Covid-19 cleaning for the Barlett Fire department in Tennessee. Steve White, the company's president and COO, instituted protocols from day one to ensure business operations continue in case of any unforeseen disaster, something he learned as a former U.S. Army infantry officer.

If you want to see how an entrepreneur is fighting to keep his or her business alive on Main Street in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, just look at Kathleen Ford, CEO of scDataCom in Savannah, Georgia. The former military nurse who runs a business security and video surveillance systems business with her daughter has dealt with medical trauma while caring for war-torn veterans back from Afghanistan and Iraq.

"After living through that, I have empathy for my peers fighting an invisible war against Covid-19," she says, noting that she is also on the front lines working 24/7 to sustain her business during the economic slowdown. "Like many business owners, the coronavirus is kicking us in our teeth, and we've had to hunker down and figure out how to handle all the disruption."

Despite all the challenges, the company's 16 employees have some assurance the company will be able to ride out this storm, thanks to Ford's leadership skills. She served 26 years in the U.S. Army Nurse Corp and retired as a colonel in 2012 overseeing a staff of 400. She also has a master's degree in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College and a master's degree in nursing from Medical College of Georgia.

"The military trains leaders to be very adaptable and find solutions as sudden crises arise," Ford says. "Those skills have helped me as a manager. I realized early on I had to pivot quickly to deal with market changes."

That do-or-die mindset has helped scDataCom shift its customer focus and adjust its product and sales strategy as the pandemic impacted business operations. It meant leasing to some customers instead of selling expensive hardware during a cash crunch. It also meant focusing more on subcontracting services to replace lost business, especially in the small business customer sector.

The military trains leaders to be very adaptable and find solutions as sudden crises arise. Those skills have helped me as a manager.
Kathleen Ford
CEO of scDataCom in Savannah, Georgia, and former military nurse

While half of the company's business is to federal agencies and public sector entities like the Port Authority of Savannah, the St. Joseph's/Candler Hospital Network, Dept. of Defense, the other half is to commercial clients including small businesses. That commercial customer base has been hit hard as many have had to close for the shutdown. And that has affected scDataCom's bottom line.

We were doubling our business every year and closed 2019 with $4.2 million in revenues. Now the company has seen sales stall, so we are hoping to finish this year flat.

For many of the nation's 2.5 million veteran-owned small businesses, the financial strain from the coronavirus pandemic increases with each passing day. But the veterans say the skills they developed during their service have taught them how to handle the unexpected.

According to a recent study by the Small Business Administration, former service members are 45% more likely to own small businesses than non-veterans, indicating that military duty often bolsters self-employment. The sector employs over 5 million workers and contributes more than $1 trillion to the U.S. economy.

From these vet entrepreneurs come smart leadership lessons that every business owner could benefit from during these uncertain times.

Don't accept defeat

"The military teaches you not to accept defeat and excel at everything you do," says former Army Sergeant Nicholas Ripplinger, co-founder and president of Battle Sight Technologies in Dayton, Ohio. His three year-old company makes infrared products for the military and first responders, including the Dayton Police Department and the US Marine Corp and has continued to operate as an essential business over the last few months. You have to be resilient and look for ways to survive in chaos, he explains.

Former Army Sergeant Nicholas Ripplinger, co-founder and president of Battle Sight Technologies in Dayton, Ohio, says you have to be resilient and look for ways to survive in chaos. Ripplinger switched some of his production to hand sanitizer during the coronavirus pandemic.
Battle Sight Technologies Inc.

To ensure all of the company's five employees stay on the payroll during the economic shutdown Ripplinger applied and received a $56,000 PPP loan under the federal government's CARES Act's Paycheck Protection Program. "That is helping us sustain our operations as the state of Ohio slowly opens its economy," he says. 

Utilize the resources you have

Battle Sight Technologies has been able to grow his business during this new normal against tough odds. "I expect revenues to go from $1 million in 2019 to $6 million by year-end," Ripplinger projects.

How did the company do that despite the shutdown that drastically impacted its business development efforts? After all, six of the trade shows it was participating were canceled and they are a major way to snare new customers.

"We talked to existing customers and found there was high demand for hand sanitizer among emergency first responders, local organizations and the public. I was able to secure 20,000 pounds of it from the chemical manufacturer that makes microcapsules for our CrayTac chemiluminescence writing instrument line in March and switched part of our infrared production line so we could bottle it. We donated half of it to emergency workers and the other half we sold commercially. It helped with the shortfall but more important helped us not have to furlough or fire any employees and keep everyone on the payroll."

More from Invest in You:
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Secure your team

Paul Steven Erchinger, owner of three The UPS Store franchises in Texas and a former member of the National Guard, runs his business with the motto "Teamwork makes the dream work." As he explains, in the service one of the most important lessons you learn is to take care of your troops who are your team."

Throughout the pandemic, Erchinger has worked alongside his 15 employees at each of his stores, demonstrating his commitment to the business — and to his customers.

"You can't lead from the back; you have to be right in front showing your staff you care about their well-being and the task at hand," he says. Supplying his staff with all the PPE protection they needed and working with them through difficult times proved they were on a very important mission together. "We share the commitment that we are a fighting force serving the community."

Be a good communicator

Many military vets have been in life-or-death situations, affording them a different perspective on crisis leadership. "Keeping your team, your customers and everyone around you calm is key," says Mary Thompson, COO of Neighborly, a franchisor of 24 home services brands serving 10 million customers. "You have to allay their fears and instill that they are purpose-driven and must focus on the critical mission that lies ahead."

She should know. A former captain in the Marines, Thompson believes "your job as a leader is to whistle in the dark; keep connecting with your people till you get to the light."

Steve White, president and COO of PuroClean, a franchisor that provides restoration services for water, fire, mold and weather disasters, agrees. As soon as the crisis hit, the former U.S. Army infantry officer set up daily national coordination calls with his 60-person team conducted seven days a week. "This allowed us to discuss the challenges we faced and share ideas on how to tackle them, he says. "It was a way for us to get ahead of the curve as things unfolded." Today those calls are held once a week.

Always have a contingency plan

"You never know when something unexpected and potentially bad will happen, so train your people on contingency plans," says White. "And be sure to trust that they will execute those plans and get it done."

As he explains, his company has protocols to ensure business operations can continue in case of any unforeseen disaster. These so-called "storm protocols" ensured the company had a remote work infrastructure in place that could be used for emergencies. Employees all had work-at-home technology tools to ensure they could do their daily jobs and be safe working from home. Those proved essential once the coronavirus arrived.

"But even the best-laid plans can go out the window when the first shot is fired, so you have to be able to pivot and react to the situation as events evolve," says White. That means instituting new emergency protocols when needed. To help his 60 employees, deemed essential workers, work through the coronavirus, White made a video to explain how to don and take off PPE and safeguard themselves on job sites.

Support your local community

The U.S. military is a volunteer corps d' elite, and as such, all men and women have a heart for serving America. That includes their local community. It's not surprising that veteran-owned businesses have been actively trying to support first responders and all those fighting the coronavirus pandemic, according to Rikki Amos, executive director of the IFA Foundation.

Examples of these efforts abound. Many of the 300 PuroClean franchisees across the country have been sanitizing the vehicles of police departments, fire trucks and other first responders for free.

"Supporting the local community where you live and work is really important, especially during this crisis," White says.

Ford can attest to that. She and her team at scDataCom started hanging security video cameras on the shuttered stores of small business clients for free so they could monitor their businesses while they were home on lockdown. "I knew they couldn't afford the expensive hardware but could pay for a monitoring service that they needed to protect their assets," says Ford.

"In the end it's about adjusting to the new normal and finding a way to make a difference," says Ripplinger.

Recruiters want to find veterans careers

JOIN US: Comcast NBCUniversal Military and Veteran Affairs, CNBC + Acorns Invest in You: Ready. Set. Grow. and DAV are partnering to host The Financial Path Forward: A Virtual Town Hall for America's Veterans on Wednesday, June 3, at 1pm ET. Register now for this (free!) lively discussion, where financial experts, thought leaders and small business advisors will provide practical solutions and guidance to help veterans find their financial way forward during this uncertain time. 

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.