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Alaska veterans succeed in business: enterprising entrepreneurs find markets, fill needs.

There are more than 21 million veterans of the Armed Services in the United States of America, according to the 2010 Census. Statistics for the number of vets who own and operate their own businesses are tallied on a five-year cycle. The most recent survey found that about 13.5 percent of businesses nationwide are owned all or in part by veterans.

Those 3.7 million businesses employ more than 8 million persons and account for $1.6 trillion in receipts.

Alaska has its share of veterans, many who fell in love with the state while stationed here. They have become successful entrepreneurs in a variety of small family businesses, large-scale suppliers, and service or specialty firms: EAR Alaska is a hearing aid provider; Elizabeth Fleming of Kodiak specializes in criminal and military law. Room for Babies is a Fairbanks childcare facility. Quality Dry Cleaning, North Pacific Auctioneers and Last Frontier Design speak for themselves. The stories of two veterans illustrate how individuals move from working for others to starting their own enterprises in different sectors of the economy. In both cases, their spouses play a role in the ventures.

RMA Consulting Group

Ray Mann, a Vietnam combat veteran, is a former director of public works for the Municipality of Anchorage. He had experience with the State of Alaska and several private firms before deciding to go on his own. Mann continued his education after entering civilian life earning a master's degree in urban and regional planning from Virginia Tech. By the 1990s, he had developed many skills teaching, mentoring and shepherding projects through the complex process of permitting and execution.

In 1996, when the company he worked for moved to Indiana, Mann and wife, Kathy, a former National Bank of Alaska vice president, decided to review their personal skills sets and set up their own shop, offering the coaching and business skills they liked to do best. "It is important to decide what market one will serve and really focus on filling the needs of that segment. We were urged to bid on government contracts, but decided we wanted a more personal business helping smaller organizations that don't have all the resources and people necessary to grow," he says.

Today with three other employees, Mann offers project management to communities such as Akutan on the Aleutian Chain. They create and direct projects from design to implementation, offering grant writing, team building and contract negotiation among their services. "We do not just write reports, we have to be engaged in the project," he says. "We like getting to know the people we work with on a personal basis, helping them see the project through to the end."

Akutan's project is especially exciting as it involves exploration for a geothermal energy source and the opportunity to help the Aleutian Chain community become energy independent. RMA Consulting Group continues to manage the project as it moves closer to production drilling and system development. Other projects include support for the new state-owned Akutan Airport development and various infrastructure projects around the community.

Mann's advice to any vet contemplating a business venture is to develop a written business plan. "One can find many examples and templates on the Internet. However, it requires more than just filling in the blanks. Kathy and I had many skills to draw upon so we developed our own plan," he says.

He recommends looking for a mentor in one's family or community to help develop realistic goals and a budget. A firm dollar goal is an important motivator to shape actions necessary to achieve the goal. If you have a good idea and a sound plan, financing is available from banks or the Small Business Administration. However, it is harder that way than tapping into family to obtain the initial startup cash, he suggests.

Alaska Adventure Cabins

Bryan Zak, a retired Air Force officer, is also owner of Alaska Adventure Cabins, a hospitality business in Homer that offers some unusual lodging opportunities on Bay Crest Hill overlooking Kachemak Bay. In addition to traditional log lodges, the vacation rentals include a 75-foot boat, the Double Eagle, on a permanent foundation, and a restored Pullman rail car, the Moose Caboose.

Zak says he was not looking to start a business when first coming to Alaska. He and his spouse, Karen, had jobs in Reston, Va. They fell in love with the beauty of the area and decided to buy a small piece of property with a fabulous view. To pay for it they decided to rent the cabins. What followed was a long process of learning about zoning codes, conditional use permits and marketing techniques while holding down full-time jobs in Anchorage.

They joined the Alaska Bed and Breakfast Association and the Homer Chamber of Commerce but neither of them knew about the free services of the Small Business Development Center at the University of Alaska. Zak became director of the SBDC in 2008, a result of networking through his role as an Alaska Performance Excellence Examiner.

"Knowing what I know now, the SBDC--including the Alaska Center's website--would be my first stop for tools, free workshops and one-on-one counseling it offers," he says. In today's world a business owner may not only need a great physical location but also an incredible presence in the "cloud" and on social media. The SBDC can provide counseling on such topics as well as how to write a business plan that includes projection, financing and employee management.

Both the SBDC and the Small Business Administration, with offices around the state, have programs with an emphasis on helping veterans transition to the private sector.

"Operation Boots to Business: From Service to Startup" offers financing, training, counseling and access to federal contracts. The program draws on a network of resource partners such as Women's Business Centers, the Senior Corps of Retired Executives (best known as SCORE), Veterans' Business Opportunity Centers and various universities. Sam Dickey of the Anchorage SBA office says Alaskans are slated to see the program this year.

Another program, "Entrepreneurship Boot Camp for Veterans with Disabilities," begun at Syracuse University may also be expanded. It is targeted to help service-disabled vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and their family caregivers, female veterans and National Guard and Reserve members. Since 2009, 434 service-disabled veterans have participated in the program.

Zak has solid advice for budding entrepreneurs. "Become involved in your community," he says. "The more you give, the more you will get and not necessarily cash. The rewards are in building a network and helping others be successful too." Zak practices that by serving on the Homer City Council, the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, the Homer Economic Development Committee and the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies board. He is also a Malcolm Baldrige program examiner.

Author Joette Storm lives in Anchorage.
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Title Annotation:MILITARY
Comment:Alaska veterans succeed in business: enterprising entrepreneurs find markets, fill needs.(MILITARY)
Author:Storm, Joette
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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