Veteran turned business owner…that seems to be a common theme these days. For the men and women of the U.S. military, returning to civilian life is often bittersweet. Veterans who have left the U.S. military in the past 10 years are facing an unemployment rate of 12.1 percent, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The lessons learned from military service: leadership, teamwork, problem solving, and hands on practical experience are the same attributes needed to succeed in business. These skills combined with the challenging employment conditions and SBA loan advantages, it only makes sense that nearly a quarter of newly discharged veterans consider starting their own businesses.
Over three years ago, the U.S. Small Business Administration launched a pilot loan program, called Patriot Express, dedicated to assisting veterans and spouses of veterans turn their small business dreams a reality.
Patriot Express loans can be used to start or expand a small business and is offered by SBA’s network of participating lenders, featuring SBA’s lowest interest rates for business loans.
In honor of Veteran’s Day, Joe McClure, Montana District Director for the U.S. Small Business Administration, visited a local veteran-owned small business and Patriot Express recipient, RoughStock Distillery in Four Corners near Bozeman.
Owners Bryan and Kari Schultz led a tour through the RoughStock Distillery facility - the first legal Montana whiskey distillery since Prohibition – and educated McClure about the production process which involves mixing, mashing, fermenting and aging.
Schultz pointed out that one of the biggest difficulties in getting started was the lack of knowledge of making whiskey (as it’s illegal to home produce), so it was definitely a process of “learn as you go.”
One thing they knew from the start (both Bryan and Kari are fourth-generation Montanan’s); they wanted to use Montana’s agriculture in their whiskey. “We have world class grains right here in Montana,” Schultz said with enthusiasm. “Why wouldn’t we put it to good use in our whiskey products?”
RoughStock made a name for themselves in the whiskey market because of the uniqueness of using local Montana barley rather than the usual corn or rye. As the popularity of Single Malt Montana Whiskey grew, RoughStock introduced four other whiskey varieties including Black Label, Spring Wheat Whiskey, Straight Rye Whiskey and Sweet Corn Whiskey.
RoughStock has exceeded everyone’s expectations, including owners Bryan and Kari. Their five year goal was to reach regional markets outside Montana such as Idaho and Colorado, however in three short years RoughStock’s market reaches across the U.S and international markets including Canada and Europe.
In the beginning the Schultzes used their own start-up cash along with a small SBA Patriot Express loan from Big Sky Western Bank. Then, after developing a fine-tuned product, which took the whiskey market by storm, the Schultzes returned to Big Sky Western Bank to help with expansion. RoughStock then acquired another Patriot Express loan to purchase a double still that will shorten the usual one week process of distilling down to one day.
“I’m excited SBA can be a part of this great opportunity for the Schultzes and RoughStock to make history,” said McClure, SBA District Director. “RoughStock is a unique business that puts Montana on the map in the whiskey industry and uses Montana’s greatest resources to feature a great product.”
If you are a veteran or qualifying military member interested in starting or expanding your own business, contact the SBA today at 406.441.1081. Let SBA help turn your dreams into a reality! Learn more by logging onto www.sba.gov.
Who May Apply for These Business Loans:
o Service-disabled veterans
o Active duty service members
o Reservists and National Guard Members
o Current spouse of a veteran or service member
o The widowed spouse of a service member who died during service or as a result of a service disability
What kinds of businesses? Applies to both start-ups and established businesses.
What can the loan be used for? For most business purposes, including start-up, expansion, equipment, cash flow, payroll, overhead, working capital, or inventory.
Fifteen years ago, Jason Sonju was pounding out dents at his father’s auto body repair shop. Today, he’s director of programming for the family-owned business, Sonju Industrial Inc., which has acquired top-dollar defense contracts with some of the largest aerospace and defense corporations in the world- Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman.
From collision repair to laser-guided missiles and assault rifles, the company has expanded steadily through the years, seizing on one opportunity after another. Sonju Industrial’s aggressive search for new business ventures has allowed it to expand through the recession, adapting to the changing political climes and mounting a firm reputation in the world of defense contracting.
The growth, while steady, has not been without its obstacles.
When Congress stopped funding of the F-22 Raptor in early 2009, for example, Sonju Industrial’s contract with Boeing was jeopardized. Although Lockheed-Martin makes the jet, some of its components come from Boeing, and Sonju Industrial was a direct supplier of those parts.
Opting for a less expensive plane, Congress shut off the tap and the contract dried up.
Fortunately, Sonju Industrial was enjoying a revenue spike in another of its ventures – manufacturing assault rifles. In fact, Sonju Industrial opened up a sister company to manufacture the AR-15, SI Defense.
Sonju Industrial has cultivated the “mentor-protégé” relationship with some of the biggest names in aerospace and defense, including Raytheon, a Tuscon-based company that is currently the fourth-largest missile manufacturer in the world. The corporations appreciate Sonju Industrial’s quality work, timely production, on-time delivery and consistent cost estimates.
Today, Sonju Industrial has a staff of more than 30 full-time employees. They program software and operate robotic machines, which cost between $250,000 and $3 million. The machines produce parts so small they fit in the palm of your hand, and other the size of your thigh.
The machines bite into tungsten, aluminum and titanium, constructing fins for missiles, lower receivers for semi-automatic assault rifles, as well as “fracture critical” parts that go into the production of airplane wings and landing gears.
“People are getting on these planes and their lives are in our hands,” Dick Sonju, president of Sonju Industrial said.
He’s come a long way since pounding out dents, and now spends much of his time sitting at a computer, programming data that tells each machine precisely what and where to cut, down to the tiniest fraction of a millimeter.
“You enter the wrong decimal point and that’s a thousand-dollar scrap of titanium,” he said. “If something zigs when is should have zagged, you have to start all over.”
Manufacturing these types of products is not cheap and requires a lot of capital. Sonju Industrial must get specific certifications and those certifications are hard and expensive to obtain and maintain, as well as the price of it’s raw materials and machinery. Luckily Sonju Industrial has been able to take advantage of SBA’s loan programs along the way.
While many businesses are shying away from taking out more debt and looking at cutting back or even throwing in the towel, one Montana business sees this time as an opportune time to invest in their business. Bill Kronmiller and Paul Neutgens, partners of American Steel, a steel fabricating business in Billings, took advantage of reduced costs, low interest rates and market position by building a new 26,000 square foot facility.
The new facility offers radiant floor heating, separate painting and production bays, elbow room for their employees and even indoor plumbing- a far cry from their previous location, which didn’t have indoor plumbing. Not only does the facility offer more room to take on bigger projects, but both owners agree providing extra room and space makes for happier employees.
“The employees seem to be happier, because they’re not all cramped up in a small space,” Neutgens said. “They have their own elbow room to get their jobs done and don’t have to worry about crowding into someone else’s area.”
American Steel was able to build the new facility and acquire land because of a Small Business Administration 504 loan for $1.468 million provided by the Big Sky Economic Development Corporation. The SBA 504 loan program provides long-term, fixed rate financing for major fixed assets, such as land and buildings.
“Not only did the 504 loan program allow for funding of the new facility, but it also provided us a better position with our cash flow,” states Kronmiller. “It’s an important part of business to understand your cash flow and make sure you have enough, especially when you are dealing with big projects and government contracts.”
In fact, 85-90% of American Steel’s business comes directly from government contracts or other projects somehow funding by the government. This wasn’t the case a few years back, when their focus was on the private sector, but because of the economy American Steel changed its focus to where the money is, which is in government funded projects.
Kronmiller and Neutgens are optimistic about the future- that’s why they built the new facility in such a ways that further expansion could be done easily by adding on to either side of the structure.
While business is stable, but not overwhelming, for American Steel, Kronmiller and Neutgens take this time to “practice” their skills and perfect what they do. Neutgens has also been taking advantage of SBA’s Emerging Leaders Initiative program to polish his business sense and financial background.