International Construction Expert Puts Down Entrepreneurial Roots in Omaha, Nebraska

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Mark Santo, owner of Mark VII Enterprises, has been in the construction industry for decades. Before becoming an entrepreneur, Santo lived overseas and travelled the world building American embassies for a defense contractor. Then his international lifestyle changed. “I met my wife, had a child and we ended the road show and moved back to Omaha. I had to start my career over again because the “international construction guy” thing was over.” Santo stayed in the construction industry, working as a project manager until the recession hit in late 2008 and he was laid off. He said his sites on getting a job on Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, NE doing construction surveillance. But a lunch in June 2010 with a then-employee of SBA’s resource partner the Nebraska Business Development Center (NBDC) changed all that. Santo met with Andy Alexander, formerly with the NBDC Procurement Technical Assistance Center. “We went to lunch, I told him what I wanted to do and about the job on Offutt. Andy’s response was, ‘you can do that, or you can do what you’re really supposed to be doing. You are supposed to be an entrepreneur – I know what an entrepreneur is made out of, and that’s you.” Santo took the advice and ran with it. “[Andy] helped me do what I’m supposed to be doing. NBDC, SCORE, SBA – he always told me who to go to, where to go, and what next steps I needed to take. Bonding, business plan, the whole process – that’s how it got started.”

Santo’s sudden transition into entrepreneurship brought a nascent idea to life. “When I was living and working overseas, I knew at some point I was going to start my own business. In 2005 I came home for a family reunion and incorporated Mark VII Enterprises in May. I opened a bank account and set up the infrastructure. I created a logo back then – so that if/when I decided to start my own business it was already there. It would sit on the shelf until I needed it.” And he did need it – a mere four months after that June 2010 meeting with Andy he was awarded his first general contract for the federal government as a prime contractor. “In four months I put together the whole business model and started advertising and bidding. I was a one-man company.”

Fast forward to 2021, and Santo has 11 employees, HUBZone, Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small  Business and 8(a) certifications through the U. S. Small Business Administration and 10 years of performance on contracts under his belt.  “The 8(a) vehicle is giving me 9 years [in the program] that I think will be a catalyst for this company to not only recover from the pandemic but to flourish.”

Recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be a long, hard road, but Santo is confident in Mark VII Enterprise’s resiliency. A key factor in that resilience was obtaining an SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and two rounds of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding in 2020 and 2021 under the CARES Act. “COVID-19 impacted me severely. I had projects lined up and they ended up going away. I literally watched every opportunity I had go away. I didn’t have any opportunities to bid on. The PPP allowed for me to payroll everyone even though I had no work for them to do. It was the government’s way of reducing the onslaught of unemployment. It allowed me to pay my staff to stay together and not go on unemployment. Both PPP loans were forgiven. It was a blessing – it was very, very significant to help me keep my doors open Without people you can’t work, but without work you can’t pay people. It was a catch-22. We have to allow small businesses to keep their staff so that if they can find work to do, they have people to do it with. [The PPP] was a great necessity for the economy from all aspects.”

Coupled with the EIDL loan, Santo is confident that he “can turn this thing around and the economy can help me do that. I’m using EIDL to augment the exhausted PPP money, so I’m using it to do what the PPP started to do – keep the lights on, keep the payroll going. I have some great people – no doubt about that.”

Although Santo says that he “has no idea how the story is going to end.” But he’s also quick to say that he is an eternal optimist. “The economy is showing that it has resiliency way beyond our wildest imagination. Through this whole pandemic and now this new wave, the economy continues to march on. That’s one of my confidence factors. Another is my 8(a) certification from SBA. That status, along with the other things that we’ve got in our arsenal – my Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business status, HUBZone certification, and my 10 years of past experience – all of those things cumulatively are why I’m still confident that we are not only going to recover, but are going to flourish.”

The SBA and its resource partners stand ready to assist Santo through his recovery process and beyond. “The reality is Mark VII would never have even become Mark VII if it hadn’t been for SBA and your resource partners,” Santo states. “All of my construction experience, my life accumulation of education and knowledge – I did that all on my own. But what I knew about how to start a business, be an entrepreneur, wear all the hats – every single piece of that was through the SBA.”

This article does not constitute or imply an endorsement by the SBA of any opinions, products, or services of any private individual or entity.