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Michigan veterans turning into "vetrepreneurs"

Jul 6, 2015

After spending years of taking orders in the military, a growing number of Michigan veterans are now giving orders in the civilian world. 

“We’re owned and operated by veterans. That’s who I prefer to hire," says businessman Corey Lusk.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

"A couple years ago, I had a few home-brew beers with a buddy of mine," Erik May says. "And I started asking him where the beer geographically came from.  Where the ingredients came from.  Pretty quickly I realized there was a big need for local malt."

From that realization, Air Force veteran Erik May launched his West Michigan malt-making business.

This spring, he showed me around his company’s new 10,000-square-foot production space for turning locally grown hops into the malt used in beer and whiskey production.

May named his business Pilot Malt House partly as a nod to his service in the Air Force. He enlisted after 9/11 and served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is still serving with the National Guard.

He says his military background helps him deal with the stress of starting a new business.

"I’ve been able to keep it in perspective, where I think other people who haven’t had the same life experiences I’ve had would probably get real stressed out about it," says May.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

"I’ve been able to keep it in perspective, where I think other people who haven’t had the same life experiences I’ve had would probably get real stressed out about it," says May." Wherever I’ve been it’s been a lot worse than whatever I’m going through here.”

James Smither is a history professor at Grand Valley State University. He also runs the school’s veterans history project.

He says many veterans start businesses because they are tired of taking orders from other people.

“One thing that really stands out among veterans is they don’t deal well with what they refer to as ‘chicken s---,’" says Smither. "All the miscellaneous rules and regulations … or simply doing things the way the boss wants to do it 'cause they want to do it this way.”

“One thing that really stands out among veterans is they don’t deal well with what they refer to as ‘chicken s---,’" says GVSU professor James Smither.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

It’s estimated about 8% of Michigan businesses are owned by military veterans; that’s slightly less than the national average. 

Matt Sherwood sees many vets turned entrepreneurs,  or "vetrepreneurs," as he calls them.  

Sherwood is the director of Vet Biz Central. It’s an agency that helps military veterans with their businesses. He’s seeing an uptick in the number of veterans wanting to start a business.

Sherwood would like to see the federal government give vets more options for using their post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits, including using them as start-up collateral for a small business.

“Not everybody is cut out to go to college," says Sherwood. "It would be great to utilize that money and that entitlement that you earned to use that to start a business if indeed that’s what you’d like to do.”

State governments are stepping in to help veteran-owned businesses get started.  

For example, Texas is waiving its franchise tax for five years for vet businesses. That could amount to a 1% savings on profits – not a lot, but maybe enough to keep a business going during its first few years.

Michigan is primarily offering vet businesses help with making connections with local development groups.   It’s also setting aside up to 5% of state government contracts for veteran-owned businesses. 

But some veterans aren’t looking for help.

“This room is going to be where the guys come and go to pick their stuff up out this door," Corey Lusk says as he shows me around his company's new headquarters. "We’re going to gut this room, paint it like this one.”

There are holes in the cinderblock walls and in some spots there’s more sky than roof, but Corey Lusk is very proud of the building in south Saginaw that will be the home of his glass block window prefab and installation business.

“I started in 2011 with me, one truck and 600 bucks," says Lusk. "I don’t owe anybody anything except a lot of thank yous, hard work, Verizon, and God."

But there is one debt Lusk plans to pay with his business and that debt is owed to his fellow veterans.

“We’re owned and operated by veterans. That’s who I prefer to hire," says Lusk. "I want to put more veterans to work like myself.”

That should be good news to Michigan’s 73,000 post-9/11 veterans, many of whom aren’t looking to start a business,  just get a good job.