From sailor to CEO: Navy veteran shares tips for business success

Medical records are filed at the 341st Medical Operations Squadron personnel reliability assurance program clinic Jan. 30, 2017, at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont.

Navy veteran Thomas H. Douglas transitioned from military service to a civilian job with JMARK Business Solutions. He started as an entry-level engineer but didn’t continue along a traditional employment path.

Instead, he purchased the company.

Last week, we asked Douglas about his debut business manual “Adapt or Die: How to Create Innovation, Solve People Puzzles, and Win in Business.” This week, we’re digging a little deeper to learn about his transition from military service to civilian employee to CEO.

Q: What is your military background?

A: I served in the Navy from 1993 to 1997 and was deployed on the USS Arthur W. Radford DD-968. During my time in the Navy, I was responsible for inventory management and financial reporting and built a min/max database for consumable products. I was awarded two Navy achievement medals for my accomplishments during my enlistment.

Q: What can you share about your transition from the military to civilian life? What challenges did you face?

A: I think I had two big challenges when I transitioned. Focusing on family and people instead of a mission or work. I had been so focused on working within the Navy and getting things done or achieving the next outcome that it was hard for me to do anything else. I still struggle with it today. My goals or missions in life can be such a big focus that I don’t take enough time to stop and enjoy those who mean so much.

The second big challenge was the lack of a good daily routine that is intentional. My days were chaos. I got up and ran hard each day but didn’t have a routine to plan the day or a wrap-up plan at the end of the day to plan the next. It was just get up, get going, work hard. As a result, I didn’t always end each day having achieved the most important tasks. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned the value of the most important tasks of the day.

Q: Did you feel well prepared for your career after serving?

A: My time in the Navy greatly prepared me for my career. Specifically, my time in the military taught me the value of teamwork, which I carry forward as a core value in my life and in my company. I also learned the impact that a leader has on their subordinates and the importance of good leadership, which is something I continue to grow in during my time as CEO.

Q: What challenges did you face when moving from employee to business owner?

A: I became a part of JMARK, designing, building, and maintaining its functional aspects as an entry-level engineer before purchasing the company in 2001. I had to make some hard decisions and downsize the company to only six people. Now, with over 110 employees, JMARK is a leader in its space. As JMARK’s CEO, I formulated processes that provided repeatable outcomes and a predictable revenue stream that placed JMARK on a growth trajectory that, up to this day, is revolutionizing the region’s engagement with technology.

Q: What advice can you offer someone who wants to follow your path, working as an employee after military service with an eye toward business ownership later?

A: Build relationships that will support you and believe in you and your objectives. The team I mentioned in the last question is key to success. None of us do it alone.

Remember that short-term sacrifices are necessary. I often had to pay talented people more than myself to ensure we had the right people around us. If you invest and believe in people, it will pay off. Some will burn you, but don’t let that tarnish your belief in people.

Forgive yourself and others for mistakes. Grace is key in learning as a team and making sure you ultimately win.

Build cash. Winter is always coming. I ran for years without much cash and was fortunate that we didn’t have really bad times. It would have destroyed us. Understand the cash requirements of the business and what it means to weather the storms. As you work on plans, learn to love the truth and don’t focus only on optimism of success.

One of my mentors taught me to build 3 plans:

  • Best case scenario
  • Most likely scenario
  • Worst case scenario

That has been invaluable to helping us thrive.

Ask for money before you need it. When you are in trouble, things get rough, even desperate. Have a credit line, borrowing base, family/friend that you can turn to, etc. before you need to utilize it. Knowing that the money is there provides additional confidence so you can stay focused on not needing it. Don’t use it unless you must but make the arrangements so that you know what you are going to do should the need arise.

ABL (Always be learning). You must be a student now and forever. Build the time in your routines to learn about the trade, about business, about leadership, about tax management, etc.

Automate as much as possible. From accounting, processes, communications, etc. There are more tools available now than ever before. Do the research to figure out how to minimize the humans that you need to accomplish the outcomes to control costs and volatility. Sure, people will be the core to the business, but make it as easy as possible for them to be successful.

As soon as you can, surround yourself with a Board of Directors or advisors. People that are in the industry, know finance better, understand scale, governance, pay strategies, products, and customers. We pay our Board, but you can start with an advisory board that isn’t paid that doesn’t meet as often but will help you navigate the process.



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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.