The most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau reveal that military veterans owned 2.4 million businesses in 2007. It isn't always easy to go from a structured military environment to managing a civilian company. But veterans can bring a highly specialized skill set, discipline, and drive to help them excel in an increasingly competitive job arena. As the 43-year-old chairman and co-founder of Victory Media, a Coraopolis, Pennsylvania-based company that has marketed the military population to corporate America through different media since 2001, Chris Hale is intimately acquainted with both worlds. Business writer Robert Lerose talked with the former Navy officer about leadership and the "strategic advantage" that veterans offer.
RL: After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1991, you had a distinguished career in the military. Tell me about that.
CH: I went into the Navy Flight Officer Program, which is for people who don't have the vision to become pilots. I spent about a year and a half after that as a navigator and communicator on a P-3, which is an anti-submarine warfare airplane. Then I moved up and became the tactical coordinator. He's like the quarterback. When pilots fly the airplane over a submarine, the tactical coordinator handles the whole operation. I worked my way up to mission commander and was with the squadron in Jacksonville, Florida for a little over three years.
RL: When was this?
CH: The fall of 1993 through January of 1997. During this time, I did two six-month deployments to Keflavik, Iceland. I also spent some time in Sicily. After that, I did a three-year recruiting tour in Pittsburgh, which is where I'm originally from, and then left active duty at the end of 1999.
RL: Around the time you left the Navy, you co-founded a web-based military media company. You also worked as a manager for a Fortune 50 company. What was the transition like for you from military command situation to civilian management?
CH: I went through a civilian business school at night when I was at recruiting duty in Pittsburgh. There were a few things I had to learn. There are a lot of similarities, quite frankly, [between the military and civilian expectations]. In the private sector, projects require people with propulsion systems.
CH: To take ideas, projects, and concepts to a point where they're properly executed takes a propulsion system, or an engine, so to speak. It's one of the core traits of leadership that you learn in the private sector. A lot of the skills I learned in the service were very, very transferable—leadership, teamwork, working in diverse teams, mission accomplishment, performance under pressure. In the military, there are serious consequences for not succeeding on a mission. In the private sector, you're very accustomed to pressure-filled situations or performance under pressure or pulling all-nighters, if you need to, to get the job done.
RL: And the differences?
In the private sector, you don't know where everybody stands. Some of the subtleties of corporate culture were new [to me]. It's hard to tell where the rank structure is, where the social structure is, where the cultural structure is. It's not visibly apparent.
RL: Your company bio says, "your principles have transformed corporate perspective on hiring military veterans from one of entitlement to one of strategic advantage." Could you elaborate on that?
CH: Most organizations that exist to benefit veterans are based on the premise that there is at least a part of that veteran that is worse off because of their service. We take a very, very opposite approach—that you're far better off because of having served. Those skills are so transferable. The things that you learn in the military prepare you for success in the private sector as an employee of somebody else, as a business owner yourself, or as what we call a hybrid of those two things, which is perhaps opening a franchise.
RL: You also believe "that military service is the best training regimen in the world and corporate America benefits from this every day." How so?
CH: Don't hire veterans because you feel it's your moral obligation to do so. Hire veterans because these guys and women can transform your company and make it better. They're model employees. They are like alumni of one of the greatest training organizations in the world—the U.S. military. When you hire a veteran, your company is benefitting from the training that the federal government has already invested heavily in. It's a tremendous workforce development expense that companies don't have to incur.
RL: Is there a specific example of a lesson you learned in the military that helped you in civilian business?
CH: I could talk to you for the next three days straight. Let me give you one: competitiveness. I wanted to be involved in the P-3 community as opposed to carrier-based aircraft. In order to achieve my first choice in platform and in where I was going to be assigned, I had to graduate first in my class in flight school [which I did]. Everybody, of course, wanted to graduate first because everybody wanted to have full control over where the Navy was going to send them. I went in as a relatively competitive person and the military made me even more so—but it's competition within a team framework. It has served me well, and I would argue it serves many veterans well.
RL: What advice would you give a military veteran who is thinking about starting his own business?
CH: Leaving the military and entering the civilian workforce is all based on fear of the unknown. [But] once you are out and competing in the private sector, you realize that you've been very well trained. Be confident you can do anything.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.