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Posted at 11:24 AM ET, 11/11/2011

Veterans turn military skills into entrepreneurial success

Andy Harold spent nine years on active duty in the United States Navy and another 11 in the reserves. During his two decades in the military, he spent much of his time flying H-60 Bravo Seahawk helicopters and building some of the Navy’s first virtual, online training programs.


Former naval pilot Andy Harold still uses the technical skills he learned in the military to design online training programs for today’s soldiers. (JAMES CRICHLOW/JACKSONVILLE BUSINESS JOURNAL)
Both, he says, are directly responsible for the business success he has found after life in the armed forces.

“My flight training showed me how to get through a problem, and that experience has helped me procedurally work my way through some of the challenges I’ve run into as a business owner,” says Harold, chief executive of A. Harold and Associates, an electronics education and training support firm. “Then there are also the technical skills I learned while developing those training programs that have helped me succeed in this particular field of work.”

Harold currently employs 88 people (roughly half are veterans) in a dozen states, including 35 at the company’s Jacksonville, Fla. headquarters. The firm works mostly with federal, state and local governments and regularly contracts with the military to provide both instructorless training equipment (simulators, multimedia programs) and instructor-led educational courses. In 2010, A. Harold and Associates brought in $10.8 million in gross sales, and Harold says his team is on pace to match that again in 2011.

At a time when veteran unemployment stands well above the national average, Harold is one of many service men and women who turned the lessons they learned as young soldiers into jobs for themselves — and in many cases, jobs for others — after departing the military. David Loftin, for instance, also spent seven years in the Navy, much of it as a nuclear electrician on the USS Bergall attack submarine. There, he acquired the electrical expertise and steadfast determination he says helped him launch an industrial electrical repair company that employs 11 workers and reached $1.2 million in gross sales last year.

“The skills I came away with were important, but discipline and focus were the biggest things I learned from the military,” said Loftin, owner of 3E Services in Tucker, Ga. “That and the never-quit attitude.”

Craig Hartzell was drafted in 1969 and spent more than two decades working on weapons and communication systems in the U.S. Army Special Forces before retiring to launch his startup in 1991. Today, he still owns Azimuth Incorporated, an electronics repair company based in Morgantown, W.Va., that employs about 100 people (about 40 veterans) and works hand-in-hand with the Department of Defense.

His success in the business world, he says, is the result of the keen interest and unique skills he developed while working on weapons and communications, as well as the sense of perseverance he gained from his years in the Army.

“Starting up a small business, you better be prepared to suffer, Hartzell says. “It’s a fight every day, especially in the brutal environment of the private sector. I think every military guy and gal who has served in the field knows what that’s like and knows how to handle that fight.”

Harvetta Spann also served in the Army, and in her role as a logistics and operations officer, she was responsible for coordinating the schedules of hundreds of maintenance workers who repaired weapons and other military machinery. Naturally, the administraitve skills she learned in the position translated well when she entered the world of event planning back in 2004.

“I’ve always been planning, organizing and coordinating from one event to another,” she said. “The only thing that changes are the players involved and the overall objective. But the responsibilities are very much the same.”

Spann continues to operate as a solopreneur, running Leesburg-based BLS Group with a little help from her husband and outsourcing many tasks to other small businesses. She mostly organizes conferences and seminars and recently launched a series of events aimed at helping other female veterans land contracts with the government. And in every project, she says she continues to draw on the lessons she learned in uniform.

“Quitting was never an option. Failure was never an option, she says. “That determination, that commitment, that loyalty, those were probably the key things I learned all along the way, dating all the way back to ROTC in college.”

Harold, the former naval helicopter pilot, echoed the importance of those very same lessons, adding that his military training “served as a crash course” on surviving the challenges of starting and running a successful business. What’s more, he says the experience gave him something he may not have found anywhere else — a sense of perspective.

“Folks ask me why things don’t rattle me, and they wonder why I’m not scared of going out there and starting a business,” he said. “I always tell them that flying at night, approaching the back of a ship, and putting the helicopter down safely is much harder than what I’m doing today. That experience gives me the confidence to do what I’m doing now.”

By  |  11:24 AM ET, 11/11/2011

 
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