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Value Added: Business lessons from a Vietnam veteran

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“Marine Corps veteran” is one of those phrases — like Harvard Business School, West Point, Goldman Sachs and, in Washington, St. John’s College High School — that mark a person for me.

It doesn’t mark someone as necessarily a good person or an asset to society. It doesn’t tell me they are philanthropic, or even kind to their mother. It does tell me they accomplished something.

Tom Frana, 66, has both St. John’s College and Marine Corps veteran on his résumé. I would admire him if he just made it through Marine boot camp (I nearly washed out of college orientation), but Frana ended up in the Vietnam jungle cradling an M16 rifle and dodging mortar fire.

Now, he is the president and largest shareholder of Vion, a Washington area computer technology company with nearly $200 million in revenue. Vion sells computer technology to the federal, state and local governments. It earns around $10 million a year in profit.

The best part of writing this column is asking entrepreneurs about their life experiences and what effect it has had on their success. Frana’s is fascinating. He went from studying to be a Christian Brother to shooting at the enemy in Vietnam to running a major computer company in Washington.

The skills he learned in the Marines have had a huge effect on how he manages Vion.

He grew up the son of a career Naval officer. His father is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who served on the battleship Tennessee when it was attacked at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. His father also was present for the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944.

Frana grew up in the Washington area, where he attended St. John’s College High School in Northwest D.C. St. John’s, run by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, is a breeding ground for some of the region’s most successful businessmen.

After finishing high school at another Christian Brothers school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Frana attended St. Mary’s College in Minnesota in preparation for becoming a De La Salle Christian Brother, a religious order devoted to teaching.

He left St. Mary’s to join the Marine Corps in 1965.

“The Marines were the same thing as the Christian Brothers,” Frana said. “You got up early, went to bed early, and had somebody telling you what to do all the time.”

After Marine boot camp in downtown San Diego, Frana became an “air delivery” specialist at Camp Lejeune, N.C., because it paid more than his job as a supply clerk.

“You pack parachutes, jump out of airplanes and drop equipment out of airplanes,” he said.

Frana’s years in the Marine Corps lasted from late 1965 to early 1969, including a one-year tour in Vietnam in 1968. He dropped ammunition, food and other supplies to remote Marine locations in south Vietnam during the infamous Tet Offensive, which involved some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

Between air delivery assignments, he spent 65 to 70 days in the jungle on patrol, carrying M14 rifles, M16 rifles, machine guns and even a grenade launcher, depending on what his orders were on a given day.

“It’s wet, dreary, bug-infested,” said Frana, who eventually became a corporal, commanding teams of six to 16 Marines. “It is drudgery and boredom, punctuated by being scared out of your life.”

After Vietnam, Frana studied liberal arts at Kendall College, just outside of Chicago. He worked his way up through the computer industry. His specialty was making sure customers knew how to run their computers and exploit them to the fullest.

He was working for Hitachi Data Systems in the mid-1990s on the West Coast when the Vion owners called him out of the blue and asked if he would like to come east and be the company’s president.

He made a deal, on the condition that he could buy out the owners, which he did within two years after he and his team drove revenue through the roof. The profit helped pay off the loans they took out to buy the company.

His guidestars for running ViOn have been three lessons he learned from the Marines:

●Take care of your employees and customers.

Frana said he learned much of his business management skills watching the way non-commissioned officers — the military’s version of mid-level managers — led their troops in Vietnam.

“One of the first things you learn is a good NCO takes care of the people and makes sure they get trained and makes sure they understand how to use whatever you’ve given them . . . guns, rifles, machine guns or dropping equipment out of airplanes. What I learned and how I applied it to business was making sure what we gave to the customers, they understood how to use it, and the functionality and its value add.”

“If you took care of your troops, your troops took care of you,” he said. Years later, the same principal applies to Vion. “If you take care of your customers, your customers will do repeat business with you.”

●Deliver a good product and make sure customers know what to do with it.

“In air delivery, you are basically delivering a product. We delivered ammunition, tanks, rice, pigs, C-rations. We were extremely focused, making sure troops . . . got what they had requested in working order. At Vion, we deliver product sets, and we make sure that it gets to where the customer wants it to go. “

●Make sure that everyone shares.

“Whether it was beer, whether it was getting movies, whether it was scheduling the Red Cross women who come through for morale . . . whatever goodies or limited benefits there are, they are to be shared equally among the enlisted men.

“At Vion, we get tickets to football, baseball, hockey . . . all that stuff goes to employees. We give them Cadillac health care, a 401k match, profit match.”

Employees earn from $40,000 to $200,000 a year. Last year’s bonus pool was $2.4 million divied among 122 people. Some employees received $5,000 and some received more than $100,000.

Frana earns a salary below $500,000, but he pays himself a seven-digit bonus on top of it.

Some of Frana’s compensation has found its way back to his roots. The Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Va., has a playground he built. And St. John’s College High School, which had such a big influence on him, has the Frana Auditorium. It also has a scholarship fund named for Frana’s parents.

His father, the survivor of Pearl Harbor and Normandy, is alive and well and living in Northern California at the ripe old age of 96.

For previous Value Added columns, go to washingtonpost.com/ business.

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