Business Monday

For military veterans who want to become entrepreneurs, the first steps are usually the hardest

Captain James Blagg retired from the Navy after 20 years of service and started his own private charter sailboat adventure business in Key West.
Captain James Blagg retired from the Navy after 20 years of service and started his own private charter sailboat adventure business in Key West. Special to the Miami Herald

When Rob Ceravolo’s impressive U.S. Navy career was nearing its end in 2009, the fighter pilot with 41 missions and two Air Medals during Operation Iraqi Freedom could have sought a lucrative job with a major airline. But he decided instead to use his military leadership and team building skills to take a big leap of faith and follow his dream, launching Tropic Ocean Airways in Key West with one seaplane that had been flown by actor Matthew McConaughey in the movie Fool’s Gold.

Ceravalo is one of approximately 3 million U.S. military veterans who are now majority owners of a small business. That number is growing as more resources are becoming available to help them navigate the civilian battlefield of business.

Veterans, who make up about 8 percent of the U.S. population at more than 21 million, are twice as likely to jump into entrepreneurship as civilians. Today, one in 10 small businesses is started by a veteran, and about 20 percent of small business employees work for veteran-owned businesses, according to the Small Business Administration.

That’s no surprise to Cornell Crews, who was in the U.S. Army for 23 years. He’s now fund development officer for the nonprofit Partners for Self-Employment, which provides South Floridians with small business training, technical assistance, loans and coaching. “Veterans bring a discipline,” he said. “They bring a need to get the job done, sometimes against a lot of odds, and that helps any entrepreneur, especially when you get knocked down so many times.”

According to the most recent national statistics available from the Small Business Administration, most veterans start businesses in finance and insurance, followed by transportation and warehousing; mining, quarrying, oil and gas; construction; and professional, scientific and technical. In South Florida, Crews says veterans start a wide variety of companies that include lawn care maintenance, cell phone repair, financial services, dog grooming, personal training and providing person chef services.

“We have veterans who come to us who want to open a restaurant, or a store with a line of clothing, or online stores,” Crews said. “We don’t turn anyone away as long as it’s legal. And if one day marijuana becomes legal in Florida, we’ll help those folks as well.”

In contrast to other parts of the country, Florida’s veteran population tends to be older. A snapshot: Of the 1.6 million veterans who reside in Florida, only 270,500 are under 45 years old, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; about 234,000 are minorities. And while Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties make up about 26 percent of Florida’s population, South Florida is home to only about 9.5 percent of the state’s veterans. The tricounty region has about 152,000 vets: 83,000 in Broward, 61,000 in Miami-Dade and 7,800 in Monroe.

Raul Mas, who was sworn in at the Pentagon as a volunteer Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army, said that South Florida is “not the natural place” where veterans would settle down because of the limited number of active duty military bases in the area.

“Everything veteran-related down here is different because there are not as many military installations,” said Justin Stuckart, the national sales director of Fort Lauderdale-based Veterans4You, who was in the Army 11 years. “Some come down here to retire to get out of the bad weather. But a lot of younger vets aren’t coming down here because they want to be around a military installation where the fit in better and there is better structure,” he said. “Down here, we veterans in business are a little more spread out. We need each other.”

There are other reasons why veterans are drawn to entrepreneurship, observers said: Sometimes they find the return to civilian life a struggle. The lingo and the management style aren’t what they’re used to. “And some veterans find the jobs they worked in the military, like artillery, have no real matching job in the civilian world, unless it’s demolition,” Crews said.

Paul Huszar, who retired two years ago from the Army after four combat tours in Iraq and 23 years of highly decorated service, is majority owner of a company, VetCor, that employs mostly vet erans and whose values include professionalism, being on time, having pride in one’s work and being accountable.

“When one of our technicians shows up in the red, white and blue polo shirt, he continues to represent all he learned in the military,” Huszar said.

The company, based in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, is poised to expand into South Florida from an office in Davie this month, he said.

Huszar’s own transition from the military was difficult. He went 0-for-40 on job applications before he eventually chanced into a meeting that led to his career at VetCor. “While the public honors and reveres and wants to support veterans, they don’t hire veterans,” he said. “They don’t understand them and see how their military skills can translate in their business.”

Huszar added that most veterans don’t interview well because they are not self-serving: “Good teammates don’t highlight themselves. That attitude is frowned upon in the military. It’s all about team.”

In the past few decades, resources for transitioning veterans have become available from federal, private and social media sources. In 1999, the Veterans Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development Act was passed, requiring the federal government to aim to award at least 3 percent of all contracts to small businesses owned by service-disabled veterans. In fiscal year 2014, a record 3.68 percent of all federal contracting dollars — $13.5 billion — went to vets who fit the criteria. Some estimates put the percentage of veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as high as one in five.

“Some veterans with PTSD may not be comfortable in a straight office setting, working 9 to 5,” Crews said. “When they have their own business, they can work their own hours and be their own boss.”

The SBA also has implemented Boots to Business, a two-step entrepreneurial training program within the Department of Defense’s Transition Assistance Program. It’s one of several federal, state and local programs and resources available to help veterans enter the business world.

Many private companies also offer assistance, including Fort Lauderdale-based CruiseOne. For the past four years the cruise agency and leisure travel company has given away five free franchises valued at $12,700 each to “deserving” U.S. military veterans in a contest it calls Operation Vetrepreneur: Become Your Own General.

Stuckart said there are Facebook pages that help with the networking, including South Florida Veterans, South Florida Student Veterans Networking and South Florida Veterans Network.

Michael Pischner, director of the Florida International University Veterans and Military Affairs Office, said with the drawdown of the military, many new veterans are using the GI Bill to further their education. In 2009, about 450 veterans attended FIU. Now about 1,800 do.

Some of FIU’s resources include the FIU Veteran and Small Farmers Outreach Program, which helps veterans transition into agriculture careers. In the next academic year, Pischner said, FIU plans to begin a veterans entrepreneurship program similar to one at the University of Florida.

But even with the available help and resources, the business world can be particularly difficult for women veterans, said Julia Hubbel, a disabled, decorated Vietnam-era veteran who started her own successful communications business, The Hubbel Group, based in Colorado. Women are less likely to utilize the available “vetrepreneur” resources because “women typically do not self identify as vets,” she said. “They tend to be much more isolated than men when they matriculate after service.”

While women now represent about 16 percent of veterans, most programs are geared toward men. “And you will find that women and minorities often find access to capital is one of the biggest barriers to starting a business,” Hubbel said.

In the past few years, a few programs targeting women have begun, including V-Wise (Women Veterans Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship), a national program based at Syracuse University. These programs have shown promise. In 2008, only

2.5 percent of veteran business owners were women; as of 2012, that number has risen to 4.4 percent.

One woman Navy veteran in Miami, who is in the early stages of her entrepreneurial quest, is Erica Woodward, a nurse at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Miami. She was an aviation electronics technician in Virginia and Bermuda during the post-Vietnam era, and has been in the medical field since she left the service in 1980.

Now, at age 57, as she approaches retirement, Woodard said she’s taking “baby steps” toward becoming her own boss. She wants to operate her own vinyl records collectibles company. She has registered her business name — Vinyl Idiot; locked in a domain name; and begun collecting the vinyl records and related items that she’ll sell.

“Serving in the military is always a great education that prepares one for employment and the business world,” she said. “You get a lot of experience working with different people in different capacities. You must be very flexible when you are in the military and step up to the plate, no matter what.”

Here are a few other veterans from South Florida who have stepped up in the world of entrepreneurship:


Nicaragua native Erick Marenco joined the U.S. Army in 2004, partly to make a big change in his life and partly to pay back his adopted country.

During his four-year stint, he cleared roads, bridges and pathways of explosive devices in Iraq as a combat engineer specialist. It was a scary job made even more frightening when the vehicle he was riding in during his first mission struck an improvised explosive device (IED) and blew up under his seat. He would have one more close brush with death, and a good friend of his from Miami would die in combat.

“It made me reflect about how short life is,” Marenco said. “I told God: If you can only give me the opportunity to go back to live my civilian life, without any hurt to my mental and physical ability, I won’t disappoint. I will do whatever it takes to do my best and empower people to do the best they can.”

Marenco said he left the military with emotional and physical problems, but he took advantage of the G.I. Bill to get his bachelor’s degree at Florida International University, with a double major in marketing and business administration. After months of not being able to find a job, he returned to FIU to get his master’s degree in international business.

Again, he failed to get a job. So he turned his energy and focus to an idea that had been long brewing, the creation of personal development and self-help books. From all of his life experiences, he developed his idea for a life planner that also helps users organize and define their values about the various aspects of their lives, including community and personal relationships, finances, and even spirituality. Nowhere else had he seen a planner with this holistic approach.

He approached the Florida Small Business Development Center Network at FIU for help in creating his first book: “I requested some help with the research and they sent a good report. I combined their findings with my findings.”

Through SCORE, the nation’s largest network of free, expert business mentors, Marenco got help from José Borda. “He gave me ideas about legal advice, what to look for, how to protect my idea,” Marenco said.

Marenco took about half of the $28,000 in his retirement account to obtain a lawyer, develop a prototype and create a website,, which still is a work in progress. Like most small businesses, Marenco said he has had great difficulty obtaining a business loan.

He is now working to print his life planner, as well as develop financial and career planners. In the future, he wants to create seminars to go with the planners.

While he works on getting his business to produce income, Marenco has a common-law wife and 3-year-old son that he has been supporting with monthly veteran disability payments. He returned from Iraq with a damaged back, ringing in his ears and PTSD, he said.

“The military helped me to be focused and tough-minded,” he said. “And I don’t waste my money. I never have had cable TV.”


James Blagg served 20 years in the U.S. Navy, beginning as a seaman on a small frigate out of Mobile, Alabama. He became a navigator and served on boats chasing drug runners in the Caribbean until 9/11, when everything changed. He was transferred to military police, serving in that capacity in Naples, Italy, and as the chief of police and range chief at Naval Air Station Key West.

His love of navigation and the water never diminished. While at his last military stop in Key West, he bought a 33-foot sailboat called Jaffo. A year before he retired, he started working toward his 100-ton masters captain’s license, to prepare for his goal of starting his own charter boat business, Sail Florida Adventures. He received his captain’s license through the Florida Keys Community College, using the Post- 9/11 GI Bill.

While attending classes, he saw the Small Business Administration office at the college. That office helped him with accounting and with approaching banks for funding. He also got help from a friend who also owns a sailboat charter business.

“I’m persistent,” Blagg said. “I keep going until the job gets done. I want to be successful. In the military, I made becoming chief a goal before I could retire, and I did. And I always told myself that when I get out, I would work for myself and never work for anybody else.”

Blagg, 42, started the business, using $80,000 of his own savings, with all the marine skills he needed to run the private charters in the waters surrounding Key West. But he learned in a hurry that for his business to be successful, he needed to learn how to market it and secure clients in the competitive tourist town.

“The first year was pretty rough,” Blagg said. “I couldn’t get customers. I started out on page 37 on Google searches.”

Blagg also learned that the big companies already had the hotel concierges in their pockets. “They wouldn’t let the little guy in,” he said. Plus the concierges wanted too big a cut of the bookings, he said.

Blagg decided his best bet would be to put his money into marketing and improving his website. While he took computer classes to learn basic HTML coding, he hired a webmaster to navigate the complexity of the Internet.

But after asking his webmaster questions that the webmaster couldn’t answer, Blagg determined the only person who was going to put enough effort into his website at an affordable price was himself.

“Anybody can learn it,” Blagg said. “You have to go out and figure what Google wants and do it.”

Now, when potential customers search for “private sailing charters Key West,” his website shows up on Page One.

Last year he added a second sailboat to his fleet, a 45-footer called Vela Andato, which means “Gone Sailing” in Italian. He also got a special commercial permit to run charters to Dry Tortugas National Park, which is 70 miles west of Key West.

He said he had difficulty getting a loan to purchase a second boat because his business was too young. One local bank would loan the money, but for only the length of the two-year permit. Bragg said that was not feasible so he saved for two years to buy the second boat.


Johnny Walker, 32, is going it alone as a project manager and homeowner’s representative for his own business called Infrastruct. But that wasn’t his original idea.

He had planned to do the same type of work, but as an employee of a company when he left the Army of Corps of Engineers a year ago as the commander of the 758th Engineer Company based in Homestead, a unit that specializes in “vertical construction.”

“I started putting out résumés on Monster, everything related to construction project management,” he said. “I was not getting a lot of hits. It was pretty scary I wasn’t getting calls.”

After three months of waiting, he decided to go full steam ahead with his own business, hoping he would learn the ropes of entrepreneurship just as he had learned how to manage construction projects.

Walker had attended Norwich Military College in Vermont, majoring in criminal justice, but he decided to join the Corps of Engineers because he “really liked construction.” He trained with the “root clearance unit,” which searched for IEDs. His training included a course at the U.S. Army Engineer School in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Eventually he was sent to the 841st Engineer Battalion based in Homestead, expecting to go to Afghanistan, but he did not get a combat tour. Instead he was given duties to build, including schools and hospitals in rural areas during a deployment in Honduras.

His unit also did a stint with Rebuilding Together Miami Dade, a nonprofit that refurbishes homes for low-income homeowners and disabled veterans. “We had the manpower, labor and tools and would renovate homes. I really got into that work,” Walker said. “It kind of sticks on you — you feel you’re really doing something good for the community.”

Walker, who has Puerto Rican roots, enjoyed his military work. He was used to moving often due to his father’s military service, which took the family to Germany, Panama and Florida, but his wife, Melinda, wanted a more stable life for their 8-year-old son.

So the family decided to stay put in Doral. In the month before his enlistment ended, Walker made plans to find work. At the same time, Melinda flagged him to courses offered by SCORE Miami on how to run a small business.

On a whim, Walker looked into the courses — which eventually led to the outline of a business plan. His proposal: to market his skills as a project engineer for construction companies and also as a homeowner’s representative — that is, someone who hires and manages roofers, electricians and other subcontractors, making sure the prices are fair and the work is well done.

He also found another valuable tool in Growthink, which has software that provides templates to help users put together a business plan quickly.

This is the route that Walker took when he could not find a job quickly. He then dug into his savings to bankroll his business, which has been steady.


Ceravolo incorporated Tropic Ocean Airways in 2009 while he was still active duty in the Navy. He soon partnered with former U.S. Marine Nick Veltre, a military helicopter crew chief, who had been his seaplane instructor.

While Ceravolo had flown “just about every jet in the Navy’s inventory,” piloting multimillion-dollar machines that travel 1.8 times the speed of sound, Veltre taught him how to read the water, wind, waves and tides for water takeoffs and landings in a seaplane.

But neither pilot had experience navigating the bureaucracy of the Federal Aviation Administration. Getting approval to operate the charter airline was a time-consuming and meticulous process.

He spent more than $300,000 of his own money from the time he launched the airline in November 2009 until he landed outside investments in November 2014. Ceravolo said he sold his house, his car and his motorcycle. “I actually rode around on a bicycle for almost two years,” he said.

At one point, the SBA Small Business Administration helped him secure a small line of credit, as part of the pilot “Patriot Express” program, Ceravolo said. During his search for funding, he was turned away from many banks, and “local small business organizations were not receptive.”

After operating for about two years, Ceravolo said he finally attracted outside investors to help grow the fleet to seven aircraft, which now operate out of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport with 40 employees, 21 of them pilots.

“For me, starting a business and growing a business is just as much of a challenge as it was flying off aircraft carriers,” said Ceravolo, 40. “It is a different type of challenge, but there is still a lot of risk involved, as well as a lot of reward. We have failed many times but still accomplished growth. I am proud of what we’ve done.”

Most of the knowledge he gained at the start came from his own “research, reading regulations, trial and error, picking the brains of other successful people as well as applying lessons learned from past failures,” Ceravolo said.

He said the military taught him ownership of outcome, in addition to teamwork and leadership. “I think everybody thinks pilots have big egos and we sure do,” he said. “But what we learned is how to own your problems. You come back from a flight and you pick it apart and look at every single thing that went wrong and every single thing that went right and you say, what are the lessons learned in this? This has a lot of value in the business world.”

Ceravolo said that he and Veltre made “a lot of bad choices” in the early going. They also struggled to create a teamwork environment that they were used to in the military.

“We were hiring for skill instead of for attitude,” Ceravolo said. “In the military, they say hire for attitude and train for skill. We learned a lot of lessons in that.”

Ceravolo said he now has a lot more gray hair but is proud of the team that is in place. Eight employees are veterans, including the general manager, director of safety and director of maintenance. And two of his former squadron mates are coming on board next year.

The military doesn’t skimp on safety, and neither do Ceravolo and his airline: All flights have two pilots.

Like many veterans who own businesses, Ceravolo believes in continuing to serve. After Hurricane Joaquin pummeled the Bahamas this summer, Tropic Ocean Airways flew 50,000 pounds of relief cargo and rescued 30 people. It also donated round-trip seaplane flights to wounded warriors participating in a dive programs in the Bahamas, and it sponsors the Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (SUDS).


After Timothy Farrell earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, he returned to civilian life and worked 35 years for the U.S. Postal Service, the last 15 in marketing.

Upon retirement, he moved from Peoria, Illinois, to Florida and eventually married. Together, he and his wife, Lulu, started a recruitment branding and marketing business in Fort Lauderdale, targeted primarily to the military, called Veterans4You.

The company landed a contract with Homeland Security to provide about 720,000 American flags annually to new U.S. citizens. These aren’t just any flags, but ones made completely in the United States. The previous contractor was supposed to supply American-made American flags, but they came from China, Farrell said. “Our material comes from South Carolina, the wooden dowels from Nashville, the domes from New Hampshire and they are all manufactured in the Atlanta area,” he said. “We try to create jobs for Americans. We can’t do it all the time, but we try.”

Farrell and his wife invested about $316,000 in the company, taking money from their personal investment and retirement accounts. “You really have to be in business for two years before a bank will even take a look at loaning you money,” he said. “So we watched our cash flow carefully.”

Farrell said they also received help from veteran-committed companies including Donald S. Calder through his firm InVision Strategy; Stephen Moss, legal advice with his law firm of Holland & Knight; Scott Denniston, of the National Veterans Small Business Coalition for his assistance with Service Disabled Veteran Owned Business; Mason Jackson, of Career Source Broward for assistance in helping to employ veterans; and Mission United, a United Way program for serving those who served.

Veterans4You started out with a tiny office “to keep the overhead very low,” Farrell said. It has already outgrown two places.

The company has hired some employees through CareerSource Broward; Farrell said the government program paid half of a veteran hire’s salary for the first 12 weeks. “You have a chance to vet out the person before deciding to keep them,” he said.

Farrell also uses his leadership skills as a board member of the Washington-based National Veterans Small Business Coalition, which helps veteran-owned businesses get federal government contracts, and as a member of the advisory board of Mission United, a Broward County branch of the United Way that helps veterans coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Veterans4You works on strategic recruitment and retention programs for the military. “We do a lot of backpacks for the National Guard; this one says ‘Find the Warrior Within,’ ” Farrell said. “We find the manufacturer of the backpacks and have the embroidery done.”

“Being a veteran-owned business gets us that foot in the door to at least present what we have,” said Stuckart, the company’s national sales director. “But that doesn’t necessarily get us our jobs at all times. We have to be able to deliver.”

Farrell said being his own boss has one big plus. He no longer must try to hide his PTSD.

“I never could bring it up at my regular job or I would be stigmatized,” he said. “But now that I run my own business, I can be an advocate.”

The writer can be reached at

A helping hand for vetrepreneurs

Here are some of the many resources available for U.S. military veterans who want to make the transition to entrepreneurship:

American Corporate Partners: This nonprofit organization connects U.S. veterans to business leaders for mentorship and career advice.

Boots to Business: This two-step entrepreneurial training program includes a two-day classroom course and an eight-week online course that offer instruction on forming a business plan and other essential elements of early business ownership.

BusinessUSA: This interactive guide helps veteran business owners find the most relevant federal, state and local tools to help start and grow their businesses.

EBV Foundation: The EBV Foundation’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities offers experiential training in entrepreneurship and business management to post- 9/11 veterans with service-related disabilities. The foundation provides grants to graduates of the program, help with business plan development, raising donations for participating schools and more.

Florida International University’s Veterans and Military Affairs Office: This office assists veterans in using their VA educational benefits. The university has a Florida Small Business Development Center and a strong veterans’ group.

National Veteran Small Business Coalition: This nonprofit organization helps veteran-owned small businesses navigate federal contracting opportunities.

NaVOBA: The National Veteran Owned Business Association is a membership-based program that advocates for veteran business owners and works as a watchdog to hold the federal government accountable to its veteran contractor mandates, while also encouraging large businesses to work with veteran owned small business vendors.

Institute for Veteran and Military Families: This Syracuse University program provides a variety of resources for military veterans who are re-entering the workforce or looking to start their own businesses.

Partners for Self Employment: The nonprofit provides small businesses with training, technical assistance, loans and coaching.

Venture Hive Veterans Program: The City of Fort Walton Beach and Venture have a pre-accelerator program and an accelerator program geared toward U.S. military veteran entrepreneurs.

Veteran Business Outreach Centers: The Small Business Administration’s only Florida-based Veteran Business Outreach Center is in Panama City. This center helps veterans access business training, counseling and mentoring in their local communities.

Veteran Fast Launch Initiative: This initiative from SCORE provides free mentoring and training, along with free software and other services to military veteran entrepreneurs.

Veteran Entrepreneur Portal: The program, which is part of the VA’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, provides access to business education, financing opportunities and links and information related to government programs and services created specifically for veterans.

Victory Spark: As part of the Global Entrepreneurship Collective, Victory Spark is an accelerator program focused on startups led by U.S. military veterans. The program includes a 12-week mentor-driven Lean LaunchPad Program, along with grant funding for entrepreneurs who complete the program.

V-Wise: Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship is an organization that provides resources, courses and mentorship to female veterans who have started businesses or are looking to do so.

EBV Foundation: The EBV Foundation’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities offers training in entrepreneurship and business management to post- 9/11 veterans with service-related disabilities.