Former U.S. Army infantryman Berin McKeown was more prepared for business ownership than most veterans.
A graduate of Cornell University in New York, the 37-year-old also has corporate experience gleaned from nearly four years at Akron, Ohio-based Goodyear Corp. Still, he didn't know where to start when it came to launching his own enterprise. He sought advice from fellow veterans he met at Cornell's business school and last year co-founded Carmel-based Delta Technologies, a four-employee firm that develops quarter-size sensors to detect structural breakdowns in bridges and buildings.
“Quite frankly, our veterans are an underserved population,” said McKeown, who served in the Army from 1995 to 2000, including a stint as a peacekeeper in the Balkans. “If it wasn’t for the transition of me going through business school and gaining a better understanding [of] how things work in the civilian world, it would have been a difficult transition.”
Now the city of Indianapolis is promoting an 18-month-old program it hopes will help others make that leap. The city's Veteran Business Enterprise program aims to increase the representation of veteran-owned businesses on city projects—an effort that has generated $217,000 in contracts for such firms so far.
The goal is to award 3 percent of the amount of city contracts to veteran-owned companies. A similar program to spur minorities and women to do business with the city has been in place for years. The program for veterans started in June 2008 through an executive order issued by Mayor Greg Ballard, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel.
“The mayor has a strong commitment to veterans, and ensuring they have a strong opportunity with the city of Indianapolis,” said Greg Wilson, the city’s director of minority, women and veteran business development.
Since the program started, $217,000 has been awarded to veterans on 10 city construction projects totaling $16 million. Veteran participation so far equates to only 1.4 percent, but Wilson is certain the city can improve upon the numbers.
“Our department directors have all embraced this initiative,” he said. “As they meet with prime contractors, you’ll start to see that number going up.”
Prime—or large—contractors often include minority- or women-owned businesses in their bids to help them get government and large corporate contracts.
Thirty-one veteran-owned companies are registered to participate in the city program, but Wilson expects that number will increase as well. The city hosted a workshop on Monday at the Madame Walker Theatre Center that provided veterans with tips on business financing, training and networking.
Construction of the new, $754 million Wishard Hospital just west of downtown that could start as early as March also should provide an incentive. The 3-percent goal for veteran participation will be in place for the project, Wilson said.
Veteran business owners interested in the city program need to first register with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs on the www.vetbiz.gov Web site. They then can contact Wilson to finish the process.
For Bob Finch, owner of Finch Constructors Inc. on Zionsville Road, the program likely will have little impact on his company. The 62-year-old Vietnam War veteran started his business in 1993 and has grown it from six employees to 114 without it. As a registered minority-owned business owner, Finch has been part of construction management teams led by Indianapolis-based Hunt Construction Group. Many of those involved stadium projects, including Lucas Oil Stadium and Conseco Fieldhouse.
Yet for younger veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the additional assistance from the city may provide the boost they need to get started, Finch said.
“What it does is it gets you in the door. A lot of veterans need that,” he said. “But you still have to deliver a quality project.”
Still, Delta Technologies' McKeown recognizes that all veterans aren’t interested in starting their own company. So on this Veterans Day, he reminded all business owners to consider hiring a veteran.
“Veterans make great employees,” he said. “They’re driven, they’re disciplined and they understand training.”
Delta Technologies has accumulated nearly two dozen customers so far. Its wireless sensors, which also provide alerts when industrial equipment becomes worn, range in price from $600 to several thousand dollars.