By Rod Kackley | MiBiz
WEST MICHIGAN — Justin Bajema was “blown up in an ambush” in Iraq. He underwent eight surgeries during six weeks of being hospitalized, and that was followed by some intense rehabilitation and extensive soul searching about “what the next step was going to be.”
The Allendale man even received a Purple Heart from President George W. Bush and was medically retired from the Marine Corps. Now he runs his own business, Access Property Management Group in Allendale, and is working to help other military veterans start their own enterprises.
“I truly believe vets are one of the nation’s greatest assets, but most of them are being under utilized,” Bajema said.
Jon Tellier is a West Point graduate who served in Italy, Germany and Desert Storm. The former Army Ranger is another military vet running his own shop in West Michigan. Jon and his wife, Sue, own JetCo Solutions. The Telliers’ and their team serve as “an extension of a company’s sales and marketing effort to pursue and win government contracts.”
Thousands of other military vets have taken a similar course to Bajema and Tellier. The U.S. Small Business Administration had one of its strongest years ever in lending to veterans in fiscal year 2011. The SBA approved more than 4,300 loans supporting $1.5 billion in financing for veteran-owned small businesses (VOSBs).
Bajema told MiBiz that after coming home from his first of two tours of duty in Iraq, he knew he had to do something different. He was tired of getting shot at.
“I was sick of being told what to do. In the military, you take orders and do what you are told to do. In Iraq, those orders nearly got me killed,” he said.
The transition from military to civilian life is not easy. Bajema and Tellier told MiBiz that a lot of vets find life boring and unfulfilling compared to their military experiences.
“Having somebody shoot at you, or jumping out of an airplane is obviously an adrenalin rush,” said Tellier.
And there was so much more responsibility in Iraq and Afghanistan for many of these men and women along with a spirit and an attitude that they find missing at home.
“Espirit de corps is absent. That was the biggest thing I found when I got out of the service,” said Tellier. “At the end of the day, people were more concerned with what was on sale at Meijer that day than anything else. There is a void.”
Hundreds of thousands of veterans are going to have to make that adjustment now that the U.S. military’s role in Iraq is ending. The SBA is expecting thousands of them will be looking to start their own businesses.
The number of counseling and training resources available to them has increased dramatically. The number of SBA Veteran Business Outreach centers has doubled nationwide.
The Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities has been expanded to eight top U.S. business schools. That is a program that helped Bajema.
“There are some seriously successful veterans coming out of this program,” he said. “It really is a ‘Band of Brothers’ for men and women. And then you get outside the military and find entrepreneurs who are also a tight, tight network.”
Tellier’s best advice to his fellow military veterans is to put together a business plan.
“You need to have a goal in mind and a road map,” he said, adding the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center assisted him in getting JetCo up and running. “They saved us a lot of bumps and bruises along the way.”
The Telliers run JetCo as a debt-free business. They love their bank but don’t do loans and believe that along with drawing that road map, any entrepreneur has to think about money. Bajema agrees.
“Chase your passions. Don’t do it just for the money. Be realistic: Can you go for a period of time without revenue coming in,” Bajema said. “Second, you have to realize that this will be tough. It is not a 9-to-5 job. It is more like a 5 a.m. to midnight job.”
“But that is OK. It gives veterans hope. It gives them something to go after. It gives them a purpose,” he said. “There are stories about vets who come back and become depressed. But this can give them hope and a platform to do great things.”
Bajema also said that he feels the discipline he learned in the Corps helps him every day as an entrepreneur. Tellier doesn’t see a lot of difference between the way he conducted his military life and the way he is running his business.
“The military, at the basic core level, taught these vets that they have to win in order to ensure our way of life, our freedoms that we enjoy, to wake up every day to go to school and work and never being afraid that our freedoms will be taken away from us,” Tellier said.
Tellier said that the military makes that part of one’s DNA. “You have to go out and get the job done,” he said.
However, vets enter civilian life with more than a single-minded focus on completing their mission. The personal attributes that it takes to run a business — responsibility, accountability and discipline — are all ingrained in military veterans, Tellier said. “Just ask our 13-year-old.”