Originally created 02/05/01

Former soldiers mind their businesses



They're the few. The proud. The entrepreneurs.

The business community doesn't give ex-military members special breaks for having served, but even so, two local men say their service experience has provided them with a few essentials for small-business success: discipline, leadership and the ability to juggle multiple tasks.

In a competitive world where 80 percent of small businesses fail within the first three years, these men say they are determined to make it.

Lawrence Hansboro, president and CEO of Push Button Paging, has passed the magic three-year mark but says the going hasn't been easy.

"I started this company with nothing; no business loan, no financing of any kind," he said. His military experience did not sway bank officials, who often prefer to see major assets or high net worth to feel assured of loan repayment.

Mr. Hansboro didn't have much. He brought to the company his military communications experience, but he had less knowledge of business and marketing.

"Push Button Paging began in 1994 as a one-room operation with one employee: myself," he said. "The first month, we didn't have any customers and didn't sell any pagers."

But the military taught him as a staff sergeant to adapt, to take a can-do attitude to any project.

"The military is a great place to start," he said. "It gives you substance, and it gives you foundation."

Today, the company has seven locations and 30 employees on the payroll. Mr. Hansboro said last year's sales were at $2 million and revenues have been continually reinvested.

He said he would welcome a partner who could help him expand his business even further.

The company's divisions, such as Talk Time USA on Gordon Highway, sell a plethora of electronics, communications devices and services. The company has even branched out into telephone service - it has a competitive local exchange carrier under the name Push Button Telephone - and operates a post office branch in its Southgate Shopping Center location.

Mr. Hansboro says he wants to stay on top of the technology curve. "When it comes to putting a chip in your arm and you mash your finger to communicate, we're going to be the chip in your arm station," he said.

Another military-bred entrepreneur is Darren S. Mitchell, who will open his first Cold Stone Creamery at Augusta Exchange in March. The franchise ice cream shop, already popular in states such as California and Arizona, allows customers to mix a wide variety of dessert ingredients into their ice cream.

Capt. Mitchell, who is still on active duty at Fort Gordon, already runs a bookkeeping service on the side.

"In the military, right up front you kind of groom yourself to manage multiple things simultaneously," he said.

He said he has been in charge of expensive helicopter equipment and numerous people in his career. With that responsibility, the military expects total accountability, he said.

The captain said he doesn't expect his first location to be his last. He wants to branch out to Savannah; Columbia; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and Miami Beach, Fla.

He said the atmosphere for the ice cream shops is lighthearted, with young employees "auditioning" rather than applying for jobs.

Despite the fun, Capt. Mitchell said he expects a great degree of discipline from his employees. "I want to groom these youngsters into better people so they can be more productive to society," he said.

Thanks to programs by the University of Georgia Small Business Center, more individuals are drawing on their military backgrounds to launch successful businesses.

Every other month, the center's regional director, Jackie Moore, comes to Fort Gordon to teach a seminar on starting a small business.

She said interest is not at the level she would like to see it, however. "It's for folks transitioning out of the military," she explained. "We would do it every month if there were more people interested."

Ms. Moore said most of those who attend have always wanted to start a business. They are willing to give up the security of the military for the uncertainty of the business world.

"The entrepreneurial spirit is not always alive and well in the military," she said. "I have some clients who have done very well. They are self-starters with good people skills who like feedback."

She said it often helps if a person has served as an officer, which provides more managerial experience.

Unfortunately, she said, veterans don't get special consideration on loans any longer. "In the past, there has been special consideration for Vietnam veterans. If the bank didn't loan them the money, the Small Business Administration would."

A special "military" box to check still remains on many loan forms, but it is used mainly for demographical tracking.

"How it would help you is you would go to the top of the pile," she said.

Reach Eric Williamson at (706) 828-3904.