From veteran to entrepreneur

Firm helped former serviceman bridge the gap between military, civilian life
May. 18, 2014 @ 04:59 AM

Gerald Fike is in transition.

He's adjusting to the heat of North Carolina, to life as a civilian and most of all to the pressures and challenges of owning a small business.

So far, the retired Air Force master sergeant is loving it all — except for the heat; he worked at a desk for most of the last couple decades, came here from Alaska, and now he's spending his days working in the sun. He admits he brought it all on himself when he decided to start his own deck restoration company earlier this spring.

"After 24 years in the military, I wanted to do something where I could call my own shots," Fike said. "And once you make the higher ranks in the military, it's a lot of desk work. I wanted to do something outside."

He started his transition in 2010, when he left the military and moved to Sanford to be closer to his dad, an Army veteran who stayed in the area after leaving the military at Fort Bragg. Fike himself worked at Fort Bragg some, but never during the four-year Army career that preceded his 20 years in the Air Force. He was a civilian contractor there after his move south, driving a forklift on base.

But a couple months ago, he decided he wanted to cut ties with military life altogether and fully join the civilian world. He thought about starting a yard work company or maybe doing some pressure washing. He found inspiration to work on decks, he said, through a combination of divine providence and a company in Raleigh that trains veterans to start their own businesses.

"I'm a Christian, so I sat down and said a prayer," Fike said. "And after I prayed, I got online to buy some equipment and saw the ad, so I went for it."

That ad led him to Wood Restoration Training, a Wake County company specializing in teaching people how to work with wood and start businesses in home repair and restoration. It also recently began a separate program focused specifically on veterans; Fike is the first graduate.

And with an unemployment rate among the 2.8 million post-9/11 veterans like Fike that is significantly higher than the national average, he said he's happy to have help.

Claudia Ciao, operations director for Wood Restoration Training, said the company has been in business about eight years but only recently began focusing on this demographic — at a time when the military is downsizing and putting more and more veterans into a struggling economy.

"What we're working on now is just better ways to find qualified veterans," Ciao said. "The problem is there are just so many veterans' organizations, and they're so scattered around."

She's not alone in that complaint. State Sen. Ronald Rabin (R-Harnett/Lee) is a retired Army colonel and serves as co-chairman of a legislative committee tasked with finding ways to get veterans academic credit or technical certifications for their military service, and thus aid their return into college programs or the workforce. He recently compared getting the approximately 50 veteran-focused groups in North Carolina organized to herding kittens.

Fike doesn't have the broader focus of Ciao and Rabin, though. At the moment, he's working with his 19-year-old son repairing decks, waiting for his 21-year-old to move down from Alaska and start helping out, and finding a way to manage all the jobs he has coming his way. Most of those jobs are in Wake County, but he said he's hoping to do more in Sanford and Fayetteville as well.

The reason for the Wake County focus, he said, is that part of his training means that the Wood Restoration folks there have helped him find customers in addition to lending equipment and helping with marketing. All that aid and training didn't come inexpensively, but Fike, who has experience crunching numbers from his military career in logistics, said he's confident he'll be able to pay.

"It's $15,000, but it's set up so you pay over time," Fike said. "Like right now, I'm not paying anything. And as I get more work, I'll pay part of what I take in."

While private companies like Wood Restoration Training offer aid in many fields, the U.S. government also offers start-up help to any veteran who wants to launch a business in any field. The Small Business Administration will certify veteran-owned businesses and also has resources for starting, financing and growing a business at www.sba.gov/content/veteran-service-disabled-veteran-owned.