Home from ser­vice, now en­trepreneurs


Vet­er­ans re-en­ter civil­ian life at an aver­age age of 41, dis­con­nected from a work net­work, so many turn to build­ing busi­nesses

He didn’t know it at the time, but Mike Ge­orge’s post­mil­i­tary ca­reer started to come to­gether one Au­gust af­ter­noon in 2016, in a small vil­lage just north of Rome.

Mr. Ge­orge had spent most of the past decade “go-go-go,” as he puts it, in a hec­tic mil­i­tary ca­reer that saw him on tours of duty in Bos­nia, Afghanistan, Mali, Iraq and else­where. That sum­mer af­ter­noon in Italy, he was vis­it­ing his un­cle, Jean, whose ru­ral prop­erty con­tained an abun­dance of olive trees. The day be­fore Mr. Ge­orge was due to head back to Canada, his un­cle asked whether there might be a mar­ket in Canada for the olive oil pro­duced there.

“It just went on like a light,” Mr. Ge­orge says. “I thought, ‘I’m go­ing to make this hap­pen.’ The next day I was on the plane, draft­ing sce­nar­ios and creat­ing plans of at­tack. I had zero con­nec­tions with the food world, so I just started sketch­ing out sce­nar­ios and fig­ur­ing out how to make those con­nec­tions.”

Mr. Ge­orge dove into the chal­lenge with the in­ten­sity of a spe­cial forces sol­dier – which, of course, he was – and olive oil be­came his un­likely-sound­ing exit strat­egy from the Cana­dian Forces.

“I had to step away,” he says. “I’d been do­ing this for 11 years; spent 900 days over­seas, not in­clud­ing train­ing. I was at a point in my life where I just wanted to be home a lit­tle more.”

He fi­nally put in his pa­pers and was re­leased from ser­vice in June. In Septem­ber, he opened a brickand-mor­tar shop called Aure­lius Food Co. on Ot­tawa’s west side, spe­cial­iz­ing in ar­ti­sanal im­ports, in­clud­ing the olive oil he started out with.

Mr. Ge­orge’s busi­ness may be unique, but his en­tre­pre­neur­ial path isn’t.

Canada doesn’t track how many mil­i­tary vet­er­ans choose en­trepreneur­ship. In the United States, vet­er­ans are 45 per cent more likely to own a busi­ness than non-vet­er­ans. In Canada, about 5,000 peo­ple exit the Forces every year, at an aver­age age of 41 – young enough to have decades of work­ing life ahead of them, but old enough to be dis­con­nected from the civil­ian work force, and at a dis­ad­van­tage in try­ing to break into ex­ist­ing pro­fes­sional net­works. Ac­cord­ing to Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Canada, one-third of vet­er­ans re­port a dif­fi­cult ad­just­ment to civil­ian life.

Ac­cord­ing to Kath­leen Kil­gour, pro­gram man­ager at Prince’s Op­er­a­tion En­tre­pre­neur (POE) – which pro­vides men­tor­ing, ed­u­ca­tional and fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to vet­er­ans seek­ing to start a busi­ness – en­trepreneur­ship is a com­mon path on this side of the bor­der, as well. The or­ga­ni­za­tion lists nearly 350 vet­eran-owned Cana­dian busi­nesses on its web­site at buyvet­eran.ca.

“Mil­i­tary per­son­nel have worked for years in ca­reers where they’ve had to ex­er­cise dis­ci­pline, lead­er­ship, stay on mis­sion, trou­bleshoot prob­lems, mit­i­gate risk,” she says. “There are so many traits that are great for build­ing a busi­ness.”

That is es­pe­cially true, she be­lieves, for the one-fifth of de­part­ing vet­er­ans who are med­i­cal ly re­leased in any given year, for rea­sons rang­ing from phys­i­cal in­juries to PTSD and anx­i­ety. Among POE’s clients, 70 per cent were med­i­cally re­leased. “It’s a great fit be­cause it’s flex­i­ble,” Ms. Kil­gour says, “and if they need to take time to man­age their phys­i­cal or men­tal health, they have the au­ton­omy to do that.”

Re­gard­less, she adds, en­trepreneur­ship fills one of the vet­er­ans’ most com­mon needs: a new mis­sion.

That was cer­tainly the case for Mr. Ge­orge, who was still work­ing at what he calls a “high oper­a­tional tempo” while plan­ning his new busi­ness. He spent his days train­ing, trav­el­ling and do­ing para­chute ex­er­cises in Cal­i­for­nia, and his nights ar­rang­ing meet-and­greets with Ot­tawa chefs, and num­ber-crunch­ing ex­penses.

One of the big­gest im­ped­i­ments to post-mil­i­tary suc­cess, he be­lieves, is vet­er­ans who don’t un­der­stand how to trans­late their skills into the civil­ian world.

“I know a lot of guys who think they’re only good at shooting guns and ex­plod­ing things,” Mr. Ge­orge says. “But you’re good at plan­ning, you’re good at sched­ul­ing, and time man­age­ment.”

Paul B. Carrol spent 24 years in uni­form as an in­fantry and spe­cial op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer, be­fore leav­ing the mil­i­tary in 2016. To­day, he di­vides his time be­tween a full-time job with the Bank of Nova Sco­tia, and an en­tre­pre­neur­ial gig as man­ag­ing part­ner with Pathfinder Lead­er­ship As­so­ciates, a com­pany founded in 2015 by Mr. Car­roll’s long-time “fire-team part­ner,” David Quick. Pathfinder pro­vides mil­i­tary-style lead­er­ship train­ing to cor­po­rate clients, in­clud­ing Air Canada, SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., and oth­ers.

“If you’ve spent decades be­ing posted from job to job, you don’t know how to do job in­ter­views,” he says.

“You’re used to a very rigid hi­er­ar­chy, which is dif­fer­ent from the civil­ian world,” he adds. “But the money and time the tax­payer has in­vested in a sol­dier has pro­duced a lot of skills, in­clud­ing lead­er­ship skills, that can be lever­aged by the na­tion. To have those peo­ple just end up sit­ting in a town­house in [On­tario towns] Oro­mocto or Petawawa is a waste to the na­tion.”

For all of the strate­gic train­ing in­cul­cated in sol­diers, Mr. Car­roll says, many fail to strate­gize their own ca­reers post-re­lease. He sug­gests vet­er­ans de­velop a five-year plan be­fore leav­ing. “If your net­work is only folks in uni­form, you don’t re­ally have a net­work,” he says.

“The mil­i­tary is all ‘we, we, we,’ but in the pri­vate sec­tor you’ve got to be able to say ‘I,’ and not be afraid to sell your­self, which is some­thing a lot of vet­er­ans struggle with.”

Mr. Ge­orge con­curs. “When peo­ple no­tice how much en­ergy or dis­ci­pline I put into it and my store, it’s all a func­tion of how I was in the mil­i­tary. But the im­por­tant thing is that I take it for what it is – my time in the mil­i­tary was re­ally im­por­tant to me, but it doesn’t de­fine me. It’s some­thing I did, not who I am.”

The money and time the tax­payer has in­vested in a sol­dier has pro­duced a lot of skills. PAUL B. CARROL PATHFINDER LEAD­ER­SHIP AS­SO­CIATES AND BANK OF NOVA SCO­TIA

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