Each branch of the U.S. military has a rigid code built on attributes such as attention to detail, integrity, and grace under pressure in place to ensure mission success.
When a service member leaves the military, these characteristics don’t vaporize; they can stick with a veteran for life. Many veterans seek outlets for these ingrained traits through hobbies, a career, or a field of study. Others decide to blaze their own trail and start a business.
The Washington Department of Veteran’s Affairs lists more than 750 certified veteran-owned businesses in Washington, a supply fueled in part by Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Naval Base Kitsap. Veteran-owned businesses comprised 9.1 percent of the U.S. total and employed 6 million people in 2012, according to the federal Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
The attributes needed to become a successful service member can also yield effective entrepreneurs. Leadership, teamwork, a strict adherence to procedures, an accelerated learning curve, and other traits honed in the military are valuable in the barracks, the battlefield, and in business. Many of the veteran business owners on the Eastside have employed these skills in their own offices, workshops, and stores.
Brian Paulus employs the skill he found most valuable during his 17 years of service as a Seabee in the Naval Construction Forces — making do with what you have.
“I got in the mindset that there is no ‘can’t’ — you can make anything happen if you want it bad enough,” Paulus says. “Sometimes in the military, you are given a task to complete without resources. This in itself makes you learn to think out of the box to accomplish the task (by) basically getting rid of the box completely and learning to think free of obstacles.”
Since 2012, Paulus spends his days in his Woodinville workshop, Imagination Fabrication, outfitting vehicles with items like roll cages. The shop’s website boasts, “If you can think it, we can make it.”
Sparks fly in the shop as the telltale popping sounds of welding echo off its walls, on one of which a tattered, sun-bleached Seabee flag hangs.
That flag was strapped to Paulus’ pack during his deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan with a counter-improvised explosive device task force. His duty was to come up with mechanisms that would trigger IEDs before they were underneath vehicles. Paulus would also add armor to SUVs, cement trucks, bulldozers, and the like to protect service members operating them in dangerous areas.
Much of this work, though important, was trial-and-error. Often, Paulus’ projects required improvisation.
“Over there, it’s all about fast-track implementation,” Paulus says. “You have to be able to look at something relatively quickly and figure out what you are going to do, engineer it, and then take it from paper to actual hard parts. You hardly ever have everything you need; you just have to make due with what you have.”
When making do with limited resources, mistakes are inevitably made. Former Army Ranger Matthew Griffin’s go-to skill from his military days is being accountable when those mishaps occur.
After leaving the Rangers, Griffin started Combat Flip Flops. The idea was simple: bring jobs to the war-torn regions, such as villages in Afghanistan and Laos, which he visited during his service. Combat Flip Flops employs those in desperate need of money to make handcrafted items.
The Combat Flip Flops headquarters — Griffin’s garage in Issaquah — is filled with countless boxes plastered with international shipping labels crammed among the shelf-lined walls. Where there are no boxes, there is a large belt sander, a vacuum-sealing table, and clear plastic bins filled with the company’s wares.
Griffin pulls a shemagh — a headscarf popular in the Middle East — from the box at his feet and holds it to the light. Shaking his head, Griffin admires the handiwork of the shemagh, which was made at a woman-owned factory in Afghanistan. “Look at this hand stitching,” he says. “This wasn’t made in a machine. You just don’t see quality like that.”
With handcrafted items comes the propensity for inconsistencies and flaws, but Griffin accepts the inevitability, viewing mistakes as an essential part of business ownership.
“We execute on something, and if we fail, hey, at least we failed trying something,” Griffin says. “That’s something that happens a lot in the military. They say, ‘If it’s worth doing, it’s worth reviewing.’ You just have to put down your pride and realize nobody is perfect. We’ve messed a lot of things up in this business, but we’ve always moved forward recognizing that we are going to fail sometimes.”
Failure, when used as a learning tool, becomes part of a leadership continuum: mistakes provide managers with lessons that can help reduce future mishaps. This is true for the employees at Kringles Bakery in Redmond, which is led by former Army reserve officer Glenn Cox. Kringles is run with military principles, but Cox’s workers don’t call him lieutenant or sir; they call him dad.
“We have a good team, but it’s because we have a strong leader in Glenn,” says Cox’s wife and business partner, Teena. “He pulls everyone together and shows them the direction they need to be headed in. (Revenue is) up 600 percent from last year, and it really is due to strong leadership and skill.”
Kringles customers are greeted by Jenny, Cox’s daughter who runs the front of the house. Cox’s other daughter, Amanda, is a trained baker who makes all of the shop’s German fare each morning. She also whips up the goodies for the family’s tandem catering business, Holidays Delight.
The bakery’s sunny ambiance and pink pastry boxes don’t exactly scream hardened veteran to customers, but behind the front lines, Cox calls the shots like he did in the Army.
“We have a lot of fun, but there are a whole lot of dynamics in a family business environment,” Cox says. “A lot of times when the going gets tough, I have to tell them that we have a mission, we have a product to get out — so figure out how to do it and get it done.”
Cox’s leadership strategy may include the “tough love” approach he learned in the military, but Cox says that keeping his family functioning as a cohesive team is the most important leadership skill he employs.
“The Army has taught me teamwork, (that) there is no ‘I’ in team … but there is an ‘M-E’ at times,” he jokes with a deep chuckle. “No one can do everything. You have to rely on the person next to you. Even if you don’t like that person at that moment, you do what you have to, to complete the mission.”
For some veterans there is no mission anymore, only memories of missions passed. According to the VA’s Office of Public Health, more than 378,300 veterans from Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Dawn have been treated for potential or provisional post-traumatic stress disorder at VA facilities. It’s estimated there are many more who have not sought help through the VA.
Those with PTSD are prone to nightmares, panic attacks, insomnia, flashbacks, violent outbursts, anger, and feeling numb and detached even from their loved ones. Many of these individuals find it difficult to work, drive a car, and socialize with loved ones, let alone own their own business.
Each veteran entrepreneur is as unique as the businesses they chose to operate, but their experiences and their skills unite them, despite the fact that they no longer wear the same uniform.
“At the end of the day, I am a product of my experiences from the military, the good and the bad,” Paulus says.