A military background can offer very specific advantages, such as the ability to get and hold a security clearance. In a host of other situations, veterans bring subject matter expertise gained while in the military to their work in the civilian world, often as defense contractors.
Then there are skills and aptitudes that are more general. Several people contacted for this story referred to a sense of responsibility, or discipline, or a work ethic developed in the military — positive attributes which help them to this day.
Bob Grande, like many others interviewed, said the military teaches a person how to tackle difficult situations. Grande was among the last people drafted into the U.S. Army, in 1972. He spent two years in the service, including time in Germany.
Being a veteran made it easier to go to school and let him buy a house, Grande recalled. In his garage he founded Quality Controlled Manufacturing Inc. of Santee, where he remains president and CEO.
The U.S. Marine Corps took Clement Johnson from the streets of Los Angeles and set him on the road to becoming a master sergeant. It gave him a familiarity with electronics and put him on course to receive a master’s degree from Columbia University. Today Johnson is CEO of ClemTech LLC in Carlsbad, which offers networking and cybersecurity services.
Johnson said the Marines taught him to communicate effectively in front of a crowd. What’s more, a military background “taught me failure and adversity is the space where great things happen.”
A Work Ethic and People Skills
Service in the U.S. Air Force prepared Eric MacGregor for life in the private sector by instilling a work ethic. When a person owns a business, he or she never really stops working. “That is kind of how it was in the military,” said MacGregor, who is president, CEO and majority owner of Indus Technology Inc., a defense contractor.
MacGregor also said military service offers an introduction to how to deal with people from different cultures and geographic areas — an essential skill for business people.
Paul Kitchin, a former U.S. Marine Corps drill sergeant, said military service teaches a person to find common ground with everyone despite differences in race, religion or politics. “It is tight quarters on a ship,” he said.
Kitchin is president and CEO of Atlas Executive Consulting, which provides services to the Naval Information Warfare Systems Command, or NAVWAR. An injury forced him to leave the service early. “No one would have pictured me in a suit and tie,” he said.
Service in the Marines, he said, gave him an ability to identify and nurture talent.
“The most valuable skill I learned and stress to my managers is to take care of your people,” he added, noting that the mission of Marine Corps leadership is first, mission accomplishment and second, troop welfare.
“We had a saying among the non-commissioned officer ranks that if you take care of your people, the mission will take care of itself,” he said. “I truly believe this and hold all of my managers to this standard. Because our people are our products. This is a cornerstone of our success.”
The military prepared David Strobel to eventually go into business for himself. He graduated with a degree in astronautical engineering from the U.S. Air Force Academy. Following that, he spent two years learning about nuclear engineering at Cornell University before continuing with his Air Force career. It was an ideal preparation for a business building satellite electronics that would be exposed to the radiation of space. Strobel is executive chairman and co-founder of Space Micro Inc. in Carmel Mountain Ranch.
The military experience also prepared him for business in another way. The stresses of business, Strobel said, are mild compared to the stress of being a first-year student at the Air Force Academy.
Allen Maxwell put dozens of lessons from his U.S. Navy days into his 2019 memoir, “The System Is Unforgiving: Play by the Rules and Win.” He recalled that the military shaped his sense of accountability and responsibility. It also gave Maxwell, who grew up in Philadelphia and rural Georgia, mentors who paid attention to him and guided him.
Other lessons derived from military experience include paying attention to detail, listening (particularly to what is not being said) and not taking situations personally.
Today Maxwell is president and CEO of his own defense contracting business, Omni2Max Inc., based in La Mesa. Defense contracting was a natural next step after careers in the military and civil service, Maxwell said. He recalled being offered a job in the auto industry and finding the culture and the business lingo very different from what he was used to. Defense contracting, by contrast, had a language and a process he was familiar with.
Elizabeth Valenzuela Banker, CEO and president of Shore Solutions Inc. in San Diego’s Grant Hill neighborhood, said her time in the U.S. Navy provided valuable lessons for running her own business.
“Though I was young when I purchased my company in 2011, I was fortunate enough to have incredibly impactful leadership during my enlistment that gave me the tools necessary to be a successful leader,” she said.
“I learned that leading is about putting the needs of your team above your own and leading from the front. You can also ensure your team’s success by providing clarity and the resources they need to be successful. Your objective is to motivate and encourage your employees and then stay out of the way to allow them to grow and show you what they are made of. This also guarantees that they will take more ownership and pride in their tasks; your company can and will meet that goal.”
As the son of a career Air Force father and a U.S. Navy veteran, Tony Teravainen knows the hardships young military families can face. Today he draws on his military and management background to run a nonprofit organization serving military families: Support the Enlisted Project, also known as STEP. The organization builds financial self-sufficiency among junior active duty enlisted members and recently discharged enlisted veterans and their families facing financial crisis through counseling, education and grants. In the last year and a half, STEP has helped individuals face challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many businesses prefer to hire veterans.
“Half of our staff are military veterans,” said Chance Mims, a U.S. Navy veteran and founder and CEO of Academy Securities. “I see these individuals as the secret sauce of the company.” Mims, whose business has offices in Carmel Valley and New York City, said veterans bring several positive attributes to a business, including their mission-driven attitude and their ability to work well in teams.
While studying for an economics degree at the U.S. Naval Academy, Mims accompanied his class on a trip to Wall Street. He recalled it as a memorable experience, even career-defining.
Being Comfortable in Charge
“Recruiting and hiring veterans is a big part of what we do,” said Isaac Lee, senior vice president of operations with the Soapy Joe’s car wash chain, based in San Diego County. Lee, a former U.S. Marine Corps pilot who went on to command a squadron, said that hiring veterans is something “we’re very deliberate about.”
Lee said his business’ average hire is an E5: a sergeant in the Marine Corps or a petty officer second class in the Navy. The person is comfortable being in charge of 15 to 20 people. Such a person is “a pretty natural fit for us” and ready to take over a site in a few months, he said. Soapy Joe’s steers such veterans into its management training program.
Military service gave these executives one more thing that business people find useful: stories to tell.
Those stories include veterans’ efforts navigating the transition between military life and the civilian world. The transition can be tough. Some, such as Johnson of ClemTech, consult with members of the military who are making that transition.
Other stories are reflective of the times. Many veterans have tales of service in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Strobel recalled going from the Air Force Academy to an Ivy League school during the tumultuous 1960s, then to an Air Force career.
Talk about different attitudes about the military.
“It was a stark contrast,” he said.