Brent Peacock spends his days in Panama City, helping military veterans transition from serving the country to starting a business and serving customers.
In the United States, veterans are great entrepreneurs. According to the U.S. Census, nearly one-in-10, or 2.4 million, small businesses are veteran-owned. These businesses employ almost 6 million Americans and generate more than a trillion dollars in revenue.
A 2012 report released by the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy also found that veterans are 45 percent more likely to start a business when compared to those with no active-duty military experience.
As the associate director of the Veteran’s Business Outreach Center Region IV, Peacock sees the success of veteran-owned small businesses firsthand. Designed to develop and retain veteran-owned businesses around the U.S., VBOCs provide training, workshops and counseling to veterans, reservists and activity duty military interested in starting or expanding a business.
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Funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration, there are 10 VBOCs throughout the country. The Panama City center serves Region IV which is comprised of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee. In addition to funding from the SBA, each VBOC partners with a host institution, such as university. Gulf Coast State College hosts the Region IV Center.
“VBOCs have been helping veterans since 1999 when House Bill 687 formed the SBA’s Office of Veteran Business Development,” said Peacock. “It was part of an initiative to help veterans participate in the U.S. economy and find opportunities in entrepreneurship after their service.”
According to Peacock, the Region IV VBOC has seen tremendous success. “In 2012, we helped 51 brand new businesses get off the ground,” said Peacock. “That’s roughly one new business a week.”
Peacock also works with veterans who already own businesses — people like Michael and Kristen Nevils, owners of M.R. Crafts, a product-design firm based in Davie. Michael is a disabled Army veteran who served as a Department of Defense specialist documenting military activities in the United States and abroad. The Nevils currently offer a product called Watersafe, a portable emergency water storage system created after Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
“We realized just how frustrating it is to wait in line for water,” said Nevils. “It is difficult when you see people having issues getting safe water for themselves and their families after a disaster.”
So the Nevils did something about it. In 2007, they developed the Watersafe, a device that allows people to transport and store 65 gallons of water efficiently in a disaster. Two years later in 2009, the Nevils sought help from Peacock and the VBOC to grow their business.
“The VBOC has been wonderful,” said Nevils. “We’ve had guidance that helped us win government contracts and develop a solid game plan to grow our company and be successful.”
VBOCs don’t provide loans, legal or accounting services. “What we do is assign a business consultant to work with each client,” said Peacock. “That consultant has expertise in the business a veteran is interested in starting or retaining.”
VBOC consultants are retired executives. Most have owned a business at some point in their career. “Our consultants are versed in everything. From opening a bakery to running a health clinic, we’ve got someone who can help you,” said Peacock.
VBOC consultants work directly with veterans to offer advice on everything from writing a quality business plan to marketing. But VBOCs aren’t the only SBA resource available to veterans contemplating entrepreneurship.
The SBA also funds over 900 Small Business Development Centers (SDBC) across the U.S., including one in downtown Fort Lauderdale on East Las Boulevard. That’s where retired Army colonel Mike Bell works with people interested in starting a business — 20 percent of whom, according to Bell, are veterans. At SBDCs, entrepreneurs are given free technical assistance, access to loans and other support needed to start or grow a business.
“Whenever a veteran walks through those doors, they are sent to me,” said Bell, who served 28 years in the Army, including a stint in Vietnam. “I help them take an idea or something they are working on and turn it into a viable business.” And he has been doing it for over a decade. That’s something the Nevils know is true. They’ve been working with Bell for years.
“Mike and SDBC have been amazing,” said Nevils. “Through taking advantage of the resources that are out there, we’ve been able to increase our sales and get the skills we need to compete for government contracts and other work.”
While there are a plethora of resources available to veterans thinking about becoming their own bosses, there are also programs that help them figure out if entrepreneurship is even right for them in the first place.
MAKING THE LEAP TO ENTREPRENEURSHIP
At the University of Central Florida, Gordon Hogan helps unemployed veterans decide if they’ve got what it takes to actually be an entrepreneur. Hogan is the director of the UCF Business Incubation Program. Launched last year, the program is new, but awareness of it is growing in the veteran community.
“When you’ve served your country and you come back as an unemployed veteran, things can be tough,” said Hogan. “But our servicemen and women are resilient and most are up for the challenge of starting a business.”
As part of UCF’s Veterans Initiative, those in the armed forces thinking about taking the plunge and becoming self-employed will sign up and take a course that will help them decide if their businesses are viable. “The course is really a reality check,” said Hogan. “It’s going to help them determine if they’ve got the motivation to succeed.”
The course, FastTrac® NewVenture™ for the Veteran Entrepreneur, normally costs $700, but there is a deep discount for veterans. “If you’ve served in the armed forces, your cost for the program is just $100,” said Gordon. “The course offers technical assistance in how to develop a winning business plan, find the right markets and startup funds. It shows them what it really takes to start and sustain a business.”
Once veterans have taken the course and decided they want to take the plunge, they become part of the UCF Business Incubation Program. “That’s where we will work closely with entrepreneurs to bring their ideas to fruition,” said Hogan.
For those who don’t take the path to entrepreneurship after the course, Hogan said, they often find steady employment elsewhere. “Once they understand that entrepreneurship isn’t what they thought it was going to be, they go another route and find work with companies in their chosen field,” said Hogan.
For some veterans, the path to business ownership isn’t paved with an idea of their own. For some, owning a franchise is a better option. “If you’re a veteran interested in owning a franchise, there a myriad of resources available for you,” said Peacock. “There’s VetFran, a program run by the International Franchise Association that connects veterans returning from Afghanistan with franchising opportunities around the country.”
The VetFran program offers training, financial and technical assistance and support from the franchising industry to match veterans with the right opportunities.
“We had so many resources open to us through the military and the SBA,” said Kristen. “They work hard to help veterans become thriving entrepreneurs. Working with the SBA was one of the things that really connected us to opportunities to grow our business.”