January 31, 2021
Veteran-owned businesses in Florida

Photo: Octavio Jones | Tampa Bay Times

Veterans in Florida

Veteran-owned businesses in Florida

Amy Keller | 12/30/2020

A 2017 report from the U.S. Small Business Administration estimates there are 187,756 veteran-owned businesses in Florida generating $57.7 billion in annual sales.

  • Eric “Doc” Wright Founder/CEO, Vets2PM, Indialantic

During his six years in the Navy, Wright learned how to weld, lead and follow commands — but when he got out of the Navy in the 1990s, the Gulf War veteran struggled to find his way in the civilian world. “I could not speak the civilian language of management,” he says. “I didn’t know how to talk about jobs. I didn’t know how to talk about my ability to plan and organize and control things. I didn’t know how to talk about employees, other than ‘subordinates’ — and they just don’t talk like that in the civilian workforce.”

Wright worked “menial jobs,” often two or three at a time. Despondent enough to consider suicide at one point, he rallied and went back to school, ultimately landing a job as an accountant with the Department of Defense. He calls himself a “mediocre accountant” but says he eventually found his niche in project management. Everything he learned in the military translated perfectly to the project management world, and within seven years he rose to a GS-13, the starting grade level for top-level supervisors in the federal government.

Today, Wright’s Florida-based company Vets2PM helps other veterans “become fluent in business” and earn “in-demand” credentials that help them find high-paying, post-service careers in project management, cyber-security, human resources management and as general managers. The live virtual and online on-demand program takes about 90 days to complete. In addition to getting them training and certifications, it helps former service members translate their experience into effective resumes, helps them with their LinkedIn profiles and interview skills and provides job placement services.

Over the past five years, the six-person shop has helped more than 860 veterans move into jobs with average starting salaries of $95,000 at more than 550 Fortune 500 companies. And in 2020, for the second year in a row, Vets2PM won a gold HIRE Vets Medallion award from the U.S. Department of Labor, which recognizes companies that recruit and employ veterans.

While the COVID lockdowns have disrupted the in-person training that Vets2PM does abroad, Wright says the company has created new products and services. As a result, it hasn’t had to lay off employees or cut salaries and has sustained revenue, at times reaching per- COVID levels. “I’m helping people every day better themselves,” he says. “Every day I wake up, I pay the universe back for letting me have another day by helping at least one veteran not go through what I went through.”

  • Paul Huszar Owner, Vetcor, Tampa

Huszar, an engineer who commanded a combat airborne engineer battalion in Iraq, says finding the right civilian job can take time and persistence. He started his job hunt before he’d even left his final post at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for Florida and at one point was “batting zero for 40” on applications. “Most people don’t understand what military people can do. They think we just shoot, move and communicate,” he says.

Through networking, Huszar met a fellow Army veteran, David Howard, who tapped him in 2013 to head a fledgling water and mold damage mitigation company called Vetcor. In 2014, Huszar bought out a third partner and half of Howard’s interest in the company.

Vetcor has built its brand and success around hiring veterans. Employees who are veterans, says Huszar, “show up fit, polite, on time and treat people with dignity and respect” — and insurance companies like that they treat each service call as a “mission,” getting in and out as fast as possible. As a result, Vetcor has been able to keep claims about 25% lower than competitors and serves as a preferred vendor for more than 60 insurance companies. The company now has eight locations (three company-owned and five franchises) across Florida. It also has franchises in Georgia and Texas.

  • Michael Waldrop CEO/Founder, Blue Cord Design & Construction, Orlando

When Waldrop resigned his commission as an Army infantry officer in the late 1990s, he moved to Orlando and started a second career in the construction industry while serving as an Army reservist. He was working his way up the ladder at a local construction company in 2006 when the Army called him to active duty and sent him to Afghanistan, where he commanded Afghan rifle companies. “I was just kind of a name on a spreadsheet. I never thought the Army would run low on infantry captains, but I suppose they did,” he recalls.

Three weeks after landing in Afghanistan, he was wounded while storming a Taliban compound but returned to duty and eventually, in 2007, to Orlando and the construction industry. “I was laser-focused on my transition, my career and trying to get after it,” says Waldrop. “And about a year into it, someone mentioned the service-disabled veteran-owned small-business program.”

In 2009, Waldrop put together a business plan, cashed out his 401(k) and took $80,000 and, with a couple of investors, launched Blue Cord Design & Construction, a commercial construction firm. “The blue cord is the Army infantryman’s cord,” he explains.

The economy was still struggling in the aftermath of the Great Recession, but Waldrop found a profitable niche doing projects for the federal government. The company broke even in its first year, and Waldrop was able to pay off his investors in year three. “Here we are 12 years later, and we do $30 million to $35 million worth of revenue a year,” he says.

About a year and a half ago, Blue Cord — which makes it a point to hire other veterans — launched a real estate development subsidiary, Blue Cord DevGroup, that has won contracts to build outpatient clinics that it owns and rents to the Department of Veterans Affairs. It just opened the first one in Kissimmee and has contracts to build others in Clermont, Texarkana, Texas, and Sumter, S.C.

Over the years, Waldrop has led other efforts to help his fellow veterans. In 2009, he and his now ex-wife founded the Camaraderie Foundation, a non-profit that offers counseling and emotional and spiritual support to military personnel, veterans and their families. He’s also become a vocal proponent of veteran business programs and the use of set-asides — giving a set percentage of government contracts to businesses owned by disabled veterans.

The federal government, for instance, has a 3% goal for participation by service-disabled veterans in federal contracting. Arkansas and Illinois both have a 5% set-aside goal for service-disabled veteran-owned businesses (SDVOBs). California, Michigan and Indiana have goals that 3% of state contracts go to SDVOBs. The school board in Orange County also has an annual goal of 3% for the dollar value of work it awards to veteran business enterprises. “I went to my county commissioners, the local airport board, school district board and got each of them to create veteran small-business programs,” Waldrop says. “I felt like this was my chance to give back and create future programs for other veterans to give them a chance to compete.”

While Florida does give preference to SDVOBs — if two bids are equal in quality and price, and one bidder is a service-disabled veteran, the contract will go to the veteran — the state has no set goals for awarding a certain percentage of state contracts to them. Waldrop hopes state lawmakers will reconsider beefing up its program with set-aside requirements. “Getting a chance to perform the work is the obstacle. These small-business programs gave me a chance to get off the bench,” he says.

  • Gregory Celestan CEO, Celestar, Tampa

After graduating from West Point in 1984, Celestan spent 20 years in the Army. Like all West Point cadets, Celestan trained as an engineer, but he also studied Russian language and culture and spent part of his career serving as a Russian foreign area officer. “The Soviet Union was our main foe, and then when the Soviet Union collapsed, I was able to travel throughout and then we were able to help build bonds with Russian military,” he recalls. “We did a lot of things that we never would have imagined during the Cold War.”

During his last assignment at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, he focused on intelligence work, including “tracking high-value targets and doing counterterrorism work.” When he retired from the Army in 2004, he stayed in Tampa Bay and set up his own government consulting firm. Over the past 16 years, he’s grown Celestar to a 142-person firm with $18 million in revenue. “We will probably double that in the next two to three years,” he says.

He finds plenty of former veterans in the Tampa-area business community, he says. “At least 12 people I either served with in the military or was familiar with have their own defense companies in the greater Tampa area. I call us frenemies because we all talk, we work together, we compete sometimes, but our military background is what brings us closer together. It’s something you don’t see in the business world — where I can pick up the phone and talk to competitors about issues we share. We can talk about issues we share and then we’ll joke and say, ‘Hey, we’re competing on this effort, and I’m going to take you down,’ and we laugh about it.”

  • Steve Edwards CEO, Premier Virtual, Boynton Beach

Growing up in Chippewa Falls, Wisc., Edwards knew he wanted to join the Army after he graduated from high school. “I wanted to jump out of airplanes, so I was in the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg,” he says. He got out after three years. “I realized the military was great, but financially, it just wasn’t what I was looking for in life.”

In 1999, he and some buddies from the 82nd Airborne headed down to Boca Raton to attend Florida Atlantic University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology. After stints in the mortgage industry and B2B sales, he got into the job fair industry, traveling across the Southeast and Southwest to conduct events. Within a few years, though, Edwards noticed a slowdown in business. “Everybody was working — they couldn’t come to job fairs,” he recalls, or they were opting to apply for jobs online instead. “It was affecting my pocketbook.”

Looking for a better way to connect employers to job candidates, Edwards seized on the concept of virtual job fairs. “People don’t have to travel. I said, ‘This is going to be the future,’ ” he recalls. In 2019, his startup began building a software platform for virtual job fairs. It launched last March, just as COVID- 19 arrived — a bit of serendipity that catapulted Premier Virtual to almost instant success. “We went from nobody knew who we were to being ranked as one of the top virtual platforms out there,” says Edwards.

During its first six to seven months, Premier Virtual has hosted 100,000 job candidates and 6,000 companies on its platform. Premier has grown from three employees to 20 during the last six months and earned nearly $2 million in revenue. Approximately 100 workforce development boards across the country, including CareerSource Florida, which oversees 24 regional partners, are using the platform for hiring events as are the Air Force, Army and several National Guard units. Edwards says individuals, companies, colleges and other organizations “that would have never done job fairs” previously are now using it for recruiting. And he’s bullish on the company’s future. “COVID-19 got our name out there. Now people see the efficiency of what’s being done,” he says.

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