In honor of Memorial Day, OPEN Forum interviewed Jerry South and Blake Hall, two Army veterans now leading successful companies. Read on for tips on how veterans can get into entrepreneurship.
It was 1982 and teenager Jerry South was feeling antsy. He grew up on a farm in Southern Maryland and wanted to see the world, so just eight days after his high school graduation he shipped off to the military. For the next three years, he worked in the 3rd Infantry Regiment (known as the Old Guard) out of Arlington, Va., as a member of the distinguished Honor Guard. His duties were to participate in formal ceremonies everywhere from Arlington National Cemetery to the White House.
In 1984, South left active duty to go to college and got another idea in the process. A new hotel was opening in Annapolis, Md., and he thought it would be fun to start a car valet business for the property. South was just 21 at the time, but he spoke with the hotel’s developer every day, trying to get his big break.
The break came one night when the hotel was in dire need of car parkers. Drawing from his quick military thinking, South rounded up nine friends, bought uniforms at the local store (green windbreakers and white shoes) and proceeded to lead an efficient team of valet workers.
By 1988, South had a list of hotel clients and decided to incorporate his business as Towne Park. He dropped out of college to focus on the company full-time. In 1993, he expanded his business to hotels in Washington, D.C., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. From there, he reached out to more markets and in 2009 started serving hospitals nationwide.
Today, Towne Park brings in $175 million in annual revenue and employs 7,300 people across several U.S. markets. International plans are in the works. South credits the military for his business success.
“I come from a very prestigious and distinct unit of the military where I learned attention to detail, uniformity and structure,” he says. “I’ve applied those disciplines and have been told that my company runs in somewhat of a militaristic style.”
Blake Hall grew up knowing he wanted to be in the Army. His grandfather fought in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War; his father went to West Point. It was during Hall’s ROTC program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville that two planes struck the World Trade Center.
“I knew then that I wanted to be an airborne ranger,” he says.
Hall graduated in 2004, was commissioned as infantry and sent to Fort Lewis, Wash. Two years later, he was off to Iraq to lead a platoon of 30 soldiers. His group operated as a SWAT team, hunting targets day and night. Nearing the end of his yearlong deployment, Hall started thinking of a future outside enemy lines–one that would take him to the classroom. He wanted to go to business school.
Still in Iraq, he told his commander of his plans to retire and was surprised at the response.
“He said, ‘If you are going to apply to business school, I want you to apply to Harvard,’” remembers Hall.
With his superior’s encouragement, he did just that, and in August 2008 he enrolled as a new student at Harvard Business School. That's where he met Matt Thompson, another Army ranger. Both were looking for an online community for veterans and couldn’t find one, so they decided to start one.
Today, the business, titled TroopSwap, is thriving. It is a marketplace for military discounts–veterans and active service members can log on to find deals on goods for up to 90 percent off. The best part: Each shopper is independently verified as a member (or former member) of the military.
“There isn’t a digital identification card for active service members and their families,” Hall says. “We are creating a standard for identification.”
TroopSwap is still in its early stages, but so far has raised $3.7 million and employs 24 people, all members of military families. Eventually, Hall would like the company to be mobile-accessible so veterans can geo-locate discounts at nearby businesses via GPS.
Advice for Troops
For veterans looking to start a business, South offers two pieces of key advice.
Tap into your training. Don’t underestimate the value of your military training and how it translates to the business world.
Play the field. Expose yourself to as many different work environments as you can to figure out your passion and then go after it.
What veteran-owned businesses do you frequent?
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