When Chris Dambach was eight years old, his father’s assignment in the U.S. Army changed and the family was relocated from Syracuse, NY to Virginia. Dambach found he could make money by selling cold cans of soda at nearby construction sites. After his soda-filled summer, Dambach spent the fall catching crawfish in creeks to sell to friends as pets and to fishermen as bait. His third venture was selling candy to other kids on his bus-eventually drawing the ire of the school principal when lunch money was used to buy candy instead. Little did Dambach know that his childhood start as an entrepreneur would come full circle when his life was at a crossroads.
“I was assigned as a scout with the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Marine Corps unit in Mattydale, NY. Our unit was activated and deployed to the Syrian border area in northern Iraq in 2009,” recounts Syracuse-native Chris Dambach. “On Mother’s Day, our vehicle rolled over and I suffered several injuries after being ejected that led to the end of my military career. While rehabbing back stateside at the VA, I began questioning what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Ever since I was a kid, I had wanted to start my own business and my mind couldn’t let go of the idea of being my own boss. My life was worthy of that.”
Friends and family encouraged Dambach to use his GI benefits to go to college or pursue a job. Starting a business from nothing in the middle of a recession seemed impossible to everyone-except Dambach. In true Marine form, Dambach transformed the negativity into more motivation for success.
“I started a lawn care business, partly because I wanted to work outside in the elements by myself-the rain, the snow, the heat of the summer. It was a little bit of therapy, too. I used $5,000 from my Iraq savings to buy mowing equipment and placed a simple Pennysaver lawn care ad in the spring of 2010.Within 48 hours, I had 30 clients and that’s where it all started,” said Dambach.
After Veteran Lawn Care Service’s first year of residential lawn care, Dambach added commercial clients to the mix in 2011. Dambach turned to the Onondaga Small Business Development Center for counseling advice on taking his business to the next level that same year.
“When I wasn’t out working on the mowers, I was reading all day and night on how to do business with the federal government. Within two weeks of researching, I bid on my first government contract. Ironically, it was the very Reserve Center where I had been assigned with the Marines,” explained Dambach. “I showed up in my civilian attire and my buddies couldn’t believe I was mowing the lawn under contract.”
In 2012, Dambach turned to the North Country Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) in Watertown for expertise in dealing with contracting. A multi-year contract with the Brooklyn VA Hospital was Dambach’s first chance outside of Central New York and, to make it work, Dambach and his crew drove the equipment down every two weeks and slept in the equipment trailers. Federal agencies were impressed with Dambach’s work ethic, accessibility and reliability as a contractor. Dambach’s performance on that contract allowed him to successfully win a $3.5 million dollar landscaping contract with the Long Island National Cemetery in 2013, and the contracting successes have been snowballing ever since. Dambach leveraged the SBA Patriot Express loan program to support the payroll needed to efficiently service such a large contract. Successful performance and attaining certifications from New York State and the VA as a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business have only added to his company’s appeal in the contracting world.
While managing his business, Dambach took time in 2013 to attend and graduate from the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans (EBV), a program offered by Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF). A one-of-a-kind initiative, EBV offers cutting-edge, experiential training in entrepreneurship and small business management to post-9/11 veterans with service-connected disabilities. The program started at Syracuse University and is currently offered at eight prestigious universities across the nation, with partial support from the SBA and large corporate sponsors. Dambach credits the EBV program with teaching him how to strategically build and grow his business and he still benefits from the connections he made to this day.
In just four years, Veteran Lawn Care Services has grown into a million-dollar business with 15 employees, 17 subcontractors and contracts for property maintenance, waste management, janitorial work, tree removal and window washing services across the Northeast. In 2014, Dambach was ready for another challenge and launched a second business, Bacon Bandits, to tap into the Syracuse food truck scene. Its signature product, a sandwich topping called “Bacon Jam”, has become a local favorite and Dambach is pursuing regional retail distribution opportunities.
Dambach’s hard work and small business success has not gone unnoticed, earning him several awards including the SBA Syracuse District’s Veteran-Owned Business Achievement Award in 2015. The well-deserved accolades and attention highlight Dambach’s unique DNA: a blend of Marine determination and entrepreneurial core.
For Chris Dambach, the future is wide-open: “I’ve learned owning your own business, especially as it’s starting, is always changing. I’m constantly adjusting, dealing with the current market conditions and pursuing new opportunities. Through it all, I continue to find the needs of our clients and fill those needs with ingenuity and integrity.”