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From Servicemen to Businessmen

For these veterans, SBA's PX is an entrepreneurial Rx.
November 21, 2008
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/198798

Dave Brackett flew hundreds of missions during his 20 years as an Air Force fighter pilot, but his restaurant concept likely would never have taken off without a boost from the U.S Small Business Administration's Patriot Express loan initiative.

Upon retiring from the Air Force in 2006, Brackett, 53, wanted to open an Italian-style trattoria in his hometown of Colorado Springs, Colo., one modeled after the rustic establishments he came to love during his many visits to Italy. While most of the military subsists on a diet of Uncle Sam's special brand of institutional gruel, Brackett was fortunate to move in more sophisticated culinary circles during stints as a military attach? at the U.S. embassies in Switzerland and Canada.

"I did a lot of eating and drinking for our country," he quips.

An epicure with an MBA, Brackett was convinced the trattoria concept would thrive in a "pizza wasteland" like Colorado Springs, where big-name corporate franchises dominate. The problem was funding. Banks were willing to loan him money, but only for a franchise pizza operation. "No way I was doing a franchise," he says. "I was going to do an independent restaurant or not do it at all."

Then he heard about Patriot Express, through which members of the military community can access loans backed by an SBA guaranty of up to 85 percent. Within weeks, Brackett had secured a $52,000 PX loan and begun the work of renovating a vintage brick building to house Pizzeria Rustica. Within a few months of opening, not only were lines forming to taste the pies produced in Brackett's wood-fired ovens, but the intimate, 40-seat restaurant had also earned a five-star review from the city's daily newspaper--a rare distinction for any restaurant, let alone a pizza joint.

"The loan allowed me to do it the right way," he says.

Since its inception in June 2007, Patriot Express has opened doors that otherwise might have remained closed to veterans with entrepreneurial aspirations. During its first 15 months, the program guaranteed more than 2,200 loans totaling about $206 million, according to William Elmore, SBA associate administrator for veterans' business development.

PX has emerged as a bright spot for the embattled SBA. "I believe we reached more veterans in the 2008 fiscal year than ever before in the history of the agency," Elmore says.

A PX loan helped transform Brackett from Air Force colonel to five-star pizzaiolo, and it's helping ex-Marine David Moorefield, 47, deliver on a battlefield promise. Soon after retiring from the Marine Corps in 2006 after 22 years, Moorfield and an associate formulated a plan to start a job placement company for veterans to help them find solid footing during the transition from military life to civilian life. "It's about keeping a promise I made to Marines on the battlefield that I won't ever forget them and I'll do anything I can to assist them and their families."

For Moorefield, who like Brackett has an MBA, the main obstacle to fulfilling that promise was finding a lender to fund his business plan. Through PX, he secured a $230,000 loan that helped launch DAK Resources in December 2007 in his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. It's been a fruitful first year for the company, which has landed several local and national public and private-sector contracts and has bids pending on several others. The former machine gunner says he's aiming to take DAK into international markets, where, he figures, veterans with overseas experience are apt to thrive.

People with military service generally make successful entrepreneurs, Elmore notes. "Veterans tend to be very good at small business."

Indeed, Ferdinand Orbino attributes the success of the driving school he purchased in 2006 not just to a $50,000 PX loan, but to the skills and attributes he developed in the Marines and National Guard. "Integrity, honesty, being motivated, organized, responsible and accountable. It all comes into play."

Orbino, who left the National Guard in 2004 after a tour in Iraq, is also ambitious. A name change to West Coast Driving was accompanied by a complete company overhaul in which he instituted a non-traditional curriculum and added state-of-the-art simulators. Orbino, 33, estimates revenues at the Federal Way, Wash., company have increased 200 percent since he took over. His goal is to open as many as 10 more branches of the school throughout Washington State.

"Your dreams are very limited when you have no financing," he says. "The SBA loan is helping me fulfill my dreams."

It's unclear whether Patriot Express will continue to fulfill dreams beyond 2010, however. The pilot program is due to expire in two years unless federal policymakers decide to extend it.


PX Up Close
Available to veterans, active-duty service members whose discharge is pending, reservists and National Guard members, current spouses of any of the above, and widowed spouses of service members or veterans who died during service, Patriot Express (PX) loans come with several enhanced features, including:

Loans of up to $500,000 are available for startup, expansion, equipment purchases, working capital, inventory and business-occupied real-estate purchases. According to SBA Associate Administrator William Elmore, 54 percent of PX loans have gone to veterans, 28 percent to active military members who are in the discharge process, and 15 percent to military spouses. For more details, visit www.sba.gov/patriotexpress.

Small-business loans of up to $2 million also are available via SBA's newly revamped Military Reservist Economic Injury Disaster Loan (MREIDL) program. Eligibility is limited to businesses sustaining economic injury because an owner or essential employee was called to active duty as a reservist. Loans are intended to cover operating costs until the reservist is released from duty. Visit www.sba.gov/services/disasterassistance for more info.