Auburn and Florida State colleagues help veterans find their way in business world

Retired U.S. Army sergeant Renee Floyd used skills learned at the Entrepreneurial Boot Camp for Disabled Veterans to help her operate a mobile lube service.  (Photo by Vasha Hunt)

Photo by Vasha Hunt

AUBURN UNIVERSITY – If Renee Floyd can quickly replace a fuel line in an Army convoy truck on the dangerous, war-torn streets of Mogadishu, as she did one Somali afternoon in 1993, the entrepreneur and small business-owner can change your vehicle’s oil anywhere.

After 21 years as a light-wheeled vehicle diesel engine mechanic in the U.S. Army, Floyd is now the proud owner of BRF Mobile Lube Services in Phenix City, Ala., a business that allows her to provide oil changes remotely.

Enter the Entrepreneurship Boot Camp for Veterans with Disabilities, or EBV – a national program that helps hundreds of veterans, like Floyd, begin their own businesses. The program, which started in 2007 and has included a satellite base at Florida State University since 2008, offers entrepreneurship and small business training to veterans with disabilities, or Wounded Warriors.

The EBV was founded at the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University and has spread to seven other campuses while graduating more than 700 veterans and creating an estimated 670 new jobs. The television news show, 60 Minutes, did a segment about the program in May.

“Since attending EBV, I have been equipped with the confidence and courage to approach other businesses to offer my services to them,” said Floyd. “I recommend this program to every veteran that I meet because this is one program that I can honestly say cares about the veteran.”

Dave Ketchen, a Lowder Eminent Scholar in the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business, is a volunteer instructor in the program, teaching students the art of franchising opportunities and entrepreneurial strategies.

“The goal of the program is to put veterans in a position to start a successful business,” said Ketchen, who taught at Florida State before coming to Auburn in 2006. “They create a business plan during the program and then they receive support as they launch their businesses.”

Floyd said the idea of opening her own business began in the deserts of Iraq in 2004.

“I was ready to retire from the military but I had no idea of what I wanted to do,” she said. “During my mulling process, I realized that the easiest thing I did as a mechanic was change oil. I had often wished that we [Army mechanics] had a way to do the simpler jobs such as oil changes on line when the bays were full so after some brainstorming and conferring with a senior warrant officer within my unit, I decided that I would open a mobile oil changing business.”

But like most business start-ups, direction was needed. EBV provided that help.

The director of the FSU branch of EBV, Professor Randy Blass, was one of Ketchen’s former students at Florida State.

Professor Dave Ketchen talks with students in Auburn’s Raymond J. Harbert College of Business.

“When I heard about the program, I pretty much demanded that he let me be one of the instructors,” Ketchen said. “He [Blass] later told me that he only accepted faculty who asked three times to be included; that way he knew they were serious. I had asked to participate every time I spoke to him – many more times than three – so he knew I was highly committed.”

An article co-authored by Ketchen and Blass and published in Business Horizons noted that “vet-repreneurs” need to create solid answers to five questions:

• Why should a customer choose to spend his or her money with you rather than with your competitors?

• Does your business idea build effectively on your unique skills, personality or experience?

• How will you maintain customer satisfaction with your value proposition over time?

• Are you pursuing a hobby or building a business?

• Could your business continue if you were no longer involved?

“Most entrepreneurs who are not veterans could also benefit from working through these questions,” Ketchen added.

For Ketchen, working with veterans is a passion.

“My father was part of the 1st Infantry Division – the “Big Red One” – in the 1960s and my grandfather was a Navy flyer in World War II,” he said. “It’s very important to me to support veterans. Giving these guys and gals some ideas on how to be successful as entrepreneurs might be the most rewarding activity I have. It definitely is the most emotionally moving.”

Floyd said business was “doing well” before she relocated for one more year in Afghanistan.

“Prior to my departure to Afghanistan, customers were requesting a little more skills than I felt comfortable providing,” she said. “So an opportunity presented itself to spend a year in Afghanistan which would give me the chance to increase my knowledge and skills that my customers were and still are requesting of me. Since being here in Afghanistan I have changed the company’s legal entity from a sole proprietorship to an LLC.

“I am currently upgrading my website to a one-stop shop meaning that I will no longer have to finger jam all of my paperwork but I will be able to almost run my business from the website. Once I finish this tour here in Afghanistan, the company will be expanding from the Phenix City/Fort Benning area to the Atlanta area. I will have two vans, one servicing each area. My next goal in Atlanta is to have four vans up and running. I project this will happen within the next five to seven years, if not sooner.”

Ketchen said he enjoys working with students in the classrooms at Lowder Hall, but he’s also learned much from working with veterans.

“Veterans have a lot more stark experiences than does the typical college student,” he said. “They have faced death and they have found a way to survive. The biggest takeaway they offer the rest of us is to be persistent. Life is hard and sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it hurts very badly. But giving up cannot be an option.”

(Written by Joe McAdory.)

Contacts: Troy Johnson, Raymond J. Harbert College of Business, (334) 844-8859 (ltj0001@auburn.edu);
Charles Martin, Office of Communications and Marketing, (334) 844-9999 (marticd@auburn.edu)