Moving Marines and the equipment they need to fight a war is more than planning and effort; it’s a practical art just to get both tanks and toilet paper to the fight. There’s just as much to be done to move the grunts and their gear back home when the war is won. Surprisingly, a small part of that real-time logistics planning work in today’s Corps isn’t done on a baked desert battlefield; it’s done half a world away in a comfortable basement in a quiet, tidy suburban neighborhood in Bellevue.
Those leathernecks know one of their own, Marcus Preasha, has their back.
Providing crucial support for Marine Corps systems
Preasha started his own consulting firm, Preasha Logistics and Consulting, about two years ago, taking his eight years’ experience in uniform and subsequent resume in the logistics industry into a government contracting business serving clients from the Marine Corps to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
It’s some high-level work sometimes with real-world, instant impact. Preasha’s company specializes in mining and gathering hidden gems of valuable information from a wide range of often isolated and proprietary database systems. Sounds easy, right? Often, though, finding these specific pieces of data requires scouring multiple systems, each with its own permissions, access controls, and types of information to make sense out of, then compiling it all into a clean, quick and easily-understood analysis that can help decide where to eliminate costly duplication and where best to put scarce combat resources.
One of Preasha’s jobs is playing a role providing a rapid and flexible logistics capability supporting Global Combat Support System-Marine Corps, a leap forward in the way the service gets what riflemen in the field need faster than ever before. Working as a subcontractor with Oracle for the Marine Corps, his company offers technical, management, database and infrastructure answers, including creative patches and fixes to resolve software issues to the Corps can effectively track, transport and deliver that crucial support—and save taxpayer dollars doing so.
Preasha enlisted in the Marines after attending college at Hampton University and Old Dominion University in the Virginia Tidewater region, and “fell in love” with the logistics field while stationed as a supply administrator at Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, Ga. Instructor and inspector duty sent him to the reserve center at Fort Omaha, where he finished his degree work.
He left the Corps, and settling in this area, did work for a government contracting firm out of Virginia, where he continued logistics work with the Marines. His company sent him to Iraq for about five months to help on site during some of the hottest fighting in the war in that country.
“Never went to Iraq with the Marines, but it took being a civilian to be sent there,” Preasha said.
Catching the entrepreneurial bug
But it was at his next job, working for a firm out Johnstown, Pa., that he caught the entrepreneurial bug. Once more working in his specialty, Preasha moved up from support to subject matter expert in Marine Corps database systems.
“I realized in doing the work for my company to get these contracts I could cut out the middle man and start my own business,” Preasha said.
After a year on the job, Preasha left that firm, and itching to go out on his own, began in 2011 working as a subcontractor to Anglicotech, a D.C.-based veteran-owned small business specializing in supply chain management.
“I kind of lucked into the opportunity,” Preasha said. The Marine Corps had rolled out its combat support system and Anglicotech and Oracle had plenty of work to go around.
“Without that SBA loan, I’d really be struggling financially,” Preasha said. “The loan gave me some breathing room, and a chance to really understand the financial part of running a business. The work was the easiest part, I know how to work with clients. The hardest part in starting a business is to understand all the different sites you have to go to register, and then there’s all the taxes you have to pay as a business owner.”
He used some of the proceeds from the loan to fly around the country to sell his nascent company’s services to provide subcontracting work. Once, on a connecting flight from Minnesota to D.C., Preasha struck up a conversation with a colleague, a talk which led to a small consulting job with the Secretary of Defense improving accountability and cutting waste with government-loaned equipment to contracting firms. At one point, Preasha claimed, the Defense Department was missing millions worth of equipment waiting to be shipped back from civilian companies.
“There’s a big emphasis by Congress to improve accountability for all the money appropriated to Defense,” he explained.
Working with PTAC to bid on more business
While at first Preasha ran his company as an “employee” of his former firm, as he continues to snag more and more contracts, “I’m more directed to really running this as a business, not just finding work on an ad hoc basis and getting money month to month.”
To that end, Preasha meets often with the Nebraska Business Development Center’s Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC), where he’s picked up tips to search job solicitations on the Federal Business Opportunities site, and certifying his company to qualify for set-aside contracts.
“PTAC really opened my eyes and helped me with that first step to really understand what I was getting into,” Preasha added.
And after one year of leaving his corporate contractor job running his own firm, Preasha said he’s doubled his income .
“I’ve got big hopes for this year,” he said. In addition to moving out of his basement and finding office space in Bellevue, he wants to win “a couple more contracts,” to expand from a staff of one part-time administrative assistant to 10 employees.
And he’s also made an effort to give back to the Marine Corps for giving him his start. Preasha has mentored several Marines making the move to civilian life, including pointing one master sergeant toward opening his own logistics contracting company.
“A lot of junior Marines especially aren’t taught to look at their future, that they’re focused on their day-to-day job,” Preasha said. “I always say take as many classes as you can, learn as much as you can. I tell them, ‘this is what I did, and you can do it, too.’”
With her Army husband deployed overseas, Chelsey Hershey returned to her home town to finish up a business degree and with a dream to go into business for herself. She found a place for sale and during a long-distance call to her husband exclaimed: “I could be a business owner tomorrow!”
His quick and supportive answer? “Go for it!”
And within a few months, her shop, Down Home Emporium, made a quick name for itself as the go-to florist in rural central Nebraska. Her place offers fresh and silk arrangements, brand-name greeting cards, a selection of toys and jewelry, and the perfect feature to finish off any home décor.
“We take care of a lot of little towns that don’t have floral services,” said Hershey, who offers services for weddings and funerals up to 75 miles away from the shop’s location in Arnold.
It’s a big help that Hershey, along with her two part-timers and a seasonal employee, have a passion to serve their customers.
“At first, we didn’t advertise very much because frankly we weren’t very experienced,” Hershey said. “But we’ve taken classes through national flower chains and have vastly improved our expertise and the range of services we can offer. We’re still learning, it’s an interesting field and one rewarding and fun.
“We’re always busy with one event or another. Doing weddings for my friends has been wonderful,” she added, “and every funeral feels like a blessing for us to be able to provide this service. We really incorporate what that person was in our arrangements.”
Perhaps the store’s best offering is the chance for local artists to offer for sale their handmade collectibles, “from crocheting, to sewing, to woodwork and furniture,” Hershey said.
“We want to give back to the community shopping at our store something that adds to the economy of our small town,” she added.
While Down Home Emporium markets through newspaper ads and sponsoring local high school athletic game broadcasts on area radio, Hershey aggressively uses social media, such as Facebook, to promote sales and display special arrangements.
Hershey’s entrepreneurial path began slowly, training horses for some spare cash when she was younger, and she picked up experience in retail working with her mom at a boutique in Arnold; that store was in the very building she would later purchase for Down Home Emporium.
After a semester in college in a pre-nursing program, she went off to Cheyenne to study equine business management; after she married, Hershey pursued a business degree with a focus in entrepreneurial studies.
“I had enjoyed through all my moves and throughout college being a sales associate at a western store and a large retail chain, and that experience learning from those stores taught me a lot about merchandising,” she said.
With two loans in hand, one through the Arnold Economic Development Corporation and another through the Custer County Development Corporation, and lots of family help, she opened the doors to the shop in Nov. 2011. A couple of years later, Hershey sought financing to expand the business inventory and the business’ offerings and services.
“I was scared, very nervous, mainly because I didn’t want to go into debt very much,” she admitted. “So I tried not to get very many loans, but that I wouldn’t have inventory stocked. Without going into debt it’s tough to expand.”
Hershey said it took a couple of years to understand the business enough gradually to change its offerings and “give a boost for this holiday season.”
“The first Christmas was great, but last year I sold a lot of what I had collected, so I really needed to get a fresh set of new inventory and home décor, and I had a few toys from the last few years, that I wanted to get fresh new things,” she said. “We’re a small town, so I can’t get a vast amount of items, maybe just ones and twos of things.” Still, an infusion of new inventory would boost sales, she explained, because advertising new items on the shelf in a store in a small town could draw customers back in.
Hershey discovered the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP) while surfing the SBA’s web site, and applied for a microloan to finance purchase of new inventory, and renovations for the building’s lighting and insulation to cut energy costs. She’s already used the proceeds to insulate the store’s display window and the drafty store room.
The SBA Microloan Program is the largest federal program solely dedicated to supporting the credit needs of very small businesses and self-employed entrepreneurs. Working through a network of community-based nonprofit intermediaries such as REAP, the program provides loans and technical assistance to start-up and emerging small businesses unable to secure credit from conventional banks.
In addition, Hershey got small business planning advice this fall from the REAP Women’s Business Center, which sponsored a five-week refresher class in business management.
And looking toward the future: “We’re always looking for unique items to have in the store,” Hershey said. “We also would really like to expand our wedding and floral service.” Future plans call for expanding delivery to outlying towns lacking a full-service florist shop.
“The sky is the limit here,” she said.
Toby Asplin (center, flanked by his crew) was looking to make an offer on a small business information technology consulting firm when he got a call from his broker. Bad news: the deal had fallen apart. That was a big disappointment. But it was what the broker did next that took Asplin full circle, back to the time, when as a child, he often followed his dad and uncle to remodeling jobs with a hammer in his small hand.
By the time he could lift a drill, Toby was boring holes for new doorknobs; later, he'd pull nails out of reclaimed lumber, and be paid for every pound he recovered.
"So by a young age I was already on a production-based compensation plan," Asplin chuckled.
His first job was at age eight, selling greeting cards thanks to an ad in the back of Boys Life magazine. With his parents urging him to save at least half the proceeds from that gig, the odd construction job and birthday money from relatives, by the time he was nearly 12, he had enough saved up to purchase two calves to raise on the family farm. Asplin re-invested the profits from the sale of the two cows, after paying for the hay and grain he'd used for feed--and purchased more calves, eventually building up a small herd.
Asplin sold the herd before he graduated high school, and figured he'd have enough in savings to put himself through a private college. The money didn't last, though, and tapped out after the first year, Asplin joined the Army. There, as combat telecommunications specialist in Germany, he was put in charge of a unit supervising soldiers with more stripes on their sleeves than he had.
"You know, I didn't have any employees when I was working for myself as a kid," Asplin said, "so that really helped me learn how to deal with difficult employee situations."
After his three years of active duty were up, he returned to college at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, balancing a full-time course load, a commitment to the Army Reserves and a job as a full-time maintenance engineer for a downtown hotel.
After college, and a gig at a bank overseeing their ATM network, Asplin seemingly put down his hammer for good, accepting a job with the city of Bellevue where he quickly got involved in the Chamber of Commerce helping small business owners craft marketing and promotion efforts to attract customers. His efforts were a quick hit.
"One guy said, “Wow, you could charge for this," Asplin remembered. Ever the entrepreneur, he started a small firm where, at first on a part-time basis, he would help his small business customers network their computers and build databases to track inventory, calculate job costs and payroll.
When his nascent firm snagged a contract with a nationwide telecom to build a customer relationship management application to track sales and services for its on-demand TV service, that was the end of Asplin's job with the city. Over the next 17 years, the company would handle contracts from some of the biggest names in logistics, technology and banking in the country as well as a number of early-stage and startup companies.
Next, Asplin would take six years away from life as an entrepreneur serving as First National Bank of Omaha's strategic partnership officer. But he felt the entrepreneurship pull once more, starting Bluestem Corporation in 2012 to handle technology services and process improvement and project management consulting for Canadian financial institutions.
"We had a very small niche with a limited window of opportunity to do the kind of work we were doing," Asplin said, "I recognized the need to have a business life for this company beyond that. So, I found a local small business consulting service for sale, dug a little into their books, and my company was ready to make them an offer."
Which brings us back to the start of our story.
There was another business out there for sale, the broker told Asplin. But it wasn't an IT firm, or a consulting company, he warned him.
It was a handyman company.
"I knew I was qualified to do the work on the front end, learning the trade growing up on the farm and helping my dad and uncle," Asplin said. Armed with his years of experience in consulting and banking, he could see that the business was a diamond in the rough. What it needed was a realignment of its cash flow priorities and better leveraging of its marketing spending to attract and keep customers.
So in March 2013, Asplin's Bluestem Corporation was approved for an SBA-guaranteed 7(a) loan through Wells Fargo to purchase the assets of Handyman Joes.
"The thing that appealed to me, given the timing and the market, was the ability to access the funds at a relatively low rate," Asplin said. "The business was a fairly asset-heavy business as opposed to the consulting companies I'd owned. With the handyman business, the bank knew, well, if the guy goes belly up, we can recoup our money."
Asplin brought a tried and true governing principle to the management of Handyman Joes: "Don’t expect what you don’t inspect" to make sure the work was getting done the right way, and money spent on the right things. He also drew on his management experience first learned in the Army to balance the changes the business needed with the desire to keep the employees in the fold.
"Any time there’s new management it makes employees nervous," he explained. "I’ve been on both sides of that. So, as the business succeeded I wanted them to participate in that success, and I made sure I’d have tangible proof fairly early in the process so they could trust me as an owner and the manager of the business."
Asplin also sought to bring his experience applying information technology to improve the business. On the firm's web site, potential clients can find information for repair and improvement jobs on kitchens, bathrooms, basements and bedrooms, as well as service for decks, siding and gutters. Moreover, he said they're developing a "Homeowner 101" series of articles and videos to help first-time homeowners understand their responsibilities with simple repairs and maintenance.
It didn't take long before Asplin was able to create three new jobs. While there's been 10-12 percent in revenue growth over the same time from the previous year, creative cost-cutting has led to a 25 percent increase in profit over the same time.
Asplin also has more than quadrupled the number of "fans" the company has for its Facebook page, "that makes it very easy to reach out to a base of customers for no charge."
He's got a short-term target for Handyman Joes to grow from four full-time technicians to eight, improve its closing on estimates and bids to move toward larger projects.
Long term, "I want to franchise the business on a national basis, and because of our approach, I think we’re fairly unique. I want to make this model stable and repeatable here in Omaha first, then we can look at opening one perhaps in Lincoln or Fremont."
But to reach that growth, Asplin said, he'll have to avoid a common trap.
"There's a problem that practitioners of a trade who are owners of businesses often get sucked down into working in the business rather than working on the business. I can clean gutters to make a customer happy but that is not my intent. I always need to take the panoramic view to see what I can do to grow the business."