Veteran-owned suppliers bring sought-after skills to clients
“Veterans accomplish tasks ahead of schedule, under budget, and independently.” – Sherrie Duncan, Duke Energy
“I wanted to find a way to stay involved, to contribute.” – Dawn Halfaker, Halfaker and Assoc
By Claire Swedberg
Veterans of the conflicts in the Middle East are coming back to civilian life with the challenge of extending their military careers, or starting a new career in a sluggish economy. Some may find work in the government sector that capitalizes on their work experience in the armed forces, and others may launch their own companies to provide those services for the government or for the private sector. Veterans of earlier conflicts have launched businesses aimed at supplying agencies and government with services in demand.
Businesses owned by veterans are considered diverse suppliers by most large corporations. Diverse status can help open doors. But like all entrepreneurs, once veteran business owners have a customer’s attention, they need to provide the outstanding service that customers seek.
Veteran-owned business enterprises (VBEs) are typically eligible for bid preference for contracts at the federal level and in many states. Preference aside, many employers report that they’re comfortable with the background and experience of former members of the military. Procurement and supplier diversity pros recognize that VBE leaders have extensive project management experience and a high level of discipline. “Veteran business owners use their military project management experience and education to help drive innovation as suppliers,” says Sherrie Duncan, manager of supplier diversity at Duke Energy (Charlotte, NC).
According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, more than three million businesses are at least 51 percent owned by veterans, with the largest concentrations in California, Texas and Florida. Nearly one-third of those businesses operate in professional, scientific and technical services. In fact, veterans are two times more likely to own their own business than non-veterans.
There are a variety of resources for veterans launching a business. One is the Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Veterans Enterprise. This agency is dedicated to helping veterans navigate the process of creating a business and gaining VBE status.
The National Veteran-Owned Business Association (NaVOBA, www.navoba.com) offers a contracting portal to opportunities in a variety of business sectors nationwide. Potential customers use the site to post requests for proposals.
VBEs bring qualities sought after by big businesses
Russ Kenworthy is supply chain manager at global technology company Itron (Liberty Lake, WA). As a provider of smart metering and communications systems for utilities throughout the world, Itron hires vendors that reflect the diversity of its broad customer base of utility companies and consumers. “We’ve really recognized the importance of diversity based on customer demands,” Kenworthy says, noting that the company formally launched its supplier diversity program in 2010, and included VBEs.
Itron uses both IT and engineering services from outside vendors and keeps a keen eye out for qualified VBEs. Once chosen, he says, “we don’t treat diverse suppliers any differently from other suppliers. We don’t distinguish one from another.”
According to Kirby Watson, supplier diversity manager for Volvo Group Purchasing, the Volvo Group considers diversity when applicable as it reviews and awards contracts to new suppliers. Veteran-owned businesses are a key supplier diversity focus area for the automotive group, which includes Mack Truck, along with minority-owned and women-owned businesses.
“The Volvo Group believes in utilizing diverse suppliers to reflect the diversity in our world, our customers and employees,” Watson says. “We work to ensure that our suppliers are not only diverse, but dedicated and accountable, providing us the level of support that is needed.”
Volvo Group has a strong interest in developing relationships with VBEs, if they can provide the services the company needs. “Veterans, in our experience, tend to be particularly committed and accountable, as you would expect from their proven records of service. That translates well for our needs,” says Watson.
Duke Energy finds veterans “uniquely qualified” in many ways
Duke Energy’s manager of supplier diversity Sherrie Duncan is the wife of a veteran and keenly aware of the value that veterans bring to the civilian sector.
“Skills learned and honed in the military align with positions at Duke Energy ranging from project managers to linemen,” she says. “We sometimes struggle to find candidates willing to work outdoors. It’s key for our employees to work well in teams and lead or complete projects effectively. Veterans, many times, have these skills due to their experiences in the military.”
Just as it values veteran employees, Duke Energy strives to work with veteran-owned suppliers, who are adept in translating military experiences into essential qualities that Duke values in its suppliers. “We find that veterans are driven to accomplish tasks ahead of schedule, under budget, and independently. All of that is highly valued in a supplier,” notes Duncan.
Supplier diversity at Duke Energy centers around veteran, service-disabled veteran, minority, woman-owned, HUBZone and 8a businesses. “We also focus on utilizing small businesses in our service territories,” she says: North and South Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Florida. “Our focus is to provide opportunities for diverse businesses throughout our core operations,” says Duncan. “We encourage utility-experienced diverse suppliers to consider us as a customer.
“We have veteran-owned businesses that provide mechanical contractor services, boiler support, IT project support, construction management, fuel services and more,” she notes.
As with all interested suppliers, Duncan says it’s imperative for vendors to understand the utility industry. They should also understand the trends and challenges within the utility industry, and be able to articulate clearly why they would be a good and viable partner for Duke Energy. “We are always looking for experienced companies that understand our business and bring solutions that allow us to more effectively and efficiently meet our customer needs.”
Duke Energy also looks at second-tier initiatives to ensure that its prime suppliers are using subcontracting services from diverse companies where they can.
Veteran Dan Cothran grows Regional Utility Services based on observed needs
Dan Cothran is president and CEO of Regional Utility Services (Spartanburg, SC), created in 2006 with two co-founders who had retired from Duke Energy. Cothran, a former military service member with eight years in the U.S. Navy Reserves, had worked for a grading company before becoming the majority owner of the company.
Regional Utility Services was launched with humble intentions. The trio sought to mow the grass around dams for Duke Energy. “It soon became clear, however, that the utility needed other services, beginning with maintenance servicing of dam equipment,” Cothran recalls. “Regional Utility Services went out and hired skilled technicians and never even bought a lawn mower,” he says.
Today the company sends its scores of service technicians to utility companies up and down the eastern seaboard as well as on the West Coast in California and Oregon. The company earned $600,000 in its first year, and has at least doubled in size each year since, earning $12 million in 2012. Its veteran-owned status has benefited the company, Cothran says, since utilities often seek small, regional and diverse vendors, and diversity was something Cothran could offer.
“Our first job at Duke Energy was to refurbish flood gates,” he says. Based on the success of that project, the company was given the opportunity to provide a variety of technical services to the energy company as well as to a growing number of other utilities. “Today RUS has an average of 125 employees in the field, sometimes as many as 200, typically during scheduled utility maintenance outages.”
Regional Utility Services staff work not just at hydroelectric plants but also for plants that generate power from fossil fuels and nuclear energy. “As we expand to more utilities, we expand our base of customers,” he says.
Matching and maximizing the workforce
The company seeks to provide steady sources of employment for staff, looking for longer-term projects as well as projects that fit the personality of staff members. “I know everyone who works for me by name,” says Cothran, and in most cases he knows their families, as well as their interests, skills and strengths. That means he can line up the right staff member with the right project. “But I don’t have as many veterans in the workforce as I’d like,” he says.
The former military personnel among his staff, he says, adapt quickly to new roles. One veteran who stands out in Cothran’s mind came to the job with no technical experience in utilities, but since then, has succeeded tremendously in a technical role. The veteran, Josh Conger, is affectionately known as “Sarge.” Customers ask for him by name.
Disabled vet Dawn Halfaker started her company to “stay involved and contribute”
Dawn Halfaker is president and CEO of Halfaker and Associates (Arlington, VA, www.halfaker.com), a provider of IT and professional services to government entities around the world. As a disabled veteran, she founded the company in 2006 to provide consulting services to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Defense Sciences Office. Today the company employs 130 people who provide technical and IT services worldwide.
Halfaker graduated from West Point Military Academy (West Point, NY) in 2001 and served as a military police officer throughout her military career. She served in Iraq beginning in 2004, but her service was brought to a halt when a rocket-propelled grenade caused the loss of her right arm. Halfaker was riding in a military vehicle when the grenade went through the front of the vehicle. She woke up from a coma several weeks later in Washington, DC, her right arm gone. “For me the biggest loss was not my arm but my career,” she recalls. “I spent my twenty-fifth birthday thinking my military career was over.
“After hitting rock bottom I decided I wanted to find a way to stay involved, to contribute,” she says. She began consulting on several DARPA projects doing technology research to enhance warfighter capabilities and to save lives on the battlefield.
She launched her company in 2006, and started adding employees soon after. Of the staff she has hired, more than 50 percent are military veterans. The majority of her company’s work is for the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Homeland Security.
Halfaker and Associates is increasingly focused on IT support in the healthcare industry, with one project involving the use of data analytics to assess the health of the military.
The value-add of the personal touch
Halfaker plays an active and visible role in her company’s projects, and visits clients regularly. “There has to be a value-add for customers,” she says. She notes that the company strives to provide that value not just with military experience, but also with diligence and attention to each project.
Halfaker, who cannot use a prosthetic because her injury damaged both her shoulder and collar bone, has learned to write and type with her left hand.
Although she says it has been an advantage to have the diversity status of a veteran-owned business, she adds, “I think a lot of our growth came from the relationships we formed early on.” She explains that customers liked to know her background and upon hearing it, were eager to bring the company on board. They’ve become repeat customers based on the company’s work.
Halfaker and Associates now works directly for several government agencies, and also as a subcontractor for other government contractors.
COMPANIES INTERESTED IN DOING BUSINESS WITH VBEs
Check websites for details.
|Company and location
|Automatic Data Processing
(ADP, Roseland, NJ)
|Business outsourcing solutions
|The Coca-Cola Company (Atlanta, GA)
|Sparkling beverages, teas, coffees, juice and juice drinks, sports drinks, packaged water and energy drinks
|Duke Energy (Charlotte, NC)
|Electric power generation and delivery
|Grainger Industrial Supply (Lake Forest, IL)
|Facilities maintenance products serving businesses and institutions in North America
|Itron (Liberty Lake, WA)
|Electricity, gas, water and thermal energy measurement and control technology; communications systems;
software; professional services
|United Parcel Service (UPS, Atlanta, GA)
|Freight, logistics and supply chain management
|Volvo Group/Mack Trucks (Greensboro, NC)
|Trucks, buses and construction equipment
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