Consider that about 5 percent of people in the U.S. are veterans, yet about 15 percent of small businesses in the country are owned and run by veterans, according to the Small Business Association (SBA).

Consider that about 5 percent of people in the U.S. are veterans, yet about 15 percent of small businesses in the country are owned and run by veterans, according to the Small Business Association (SBA).

The trend of veterans opening businesses is widespread enough that a word has been coined to describe such business owners. The National Veteran-Owned Business Association (NaVOBA) calls them vetrepreneurs.

NaVOBA and others say veterans are well-equipped to become business owners.

“The lessons learned and lived in military service, like leadership, teamwork, competitive spirit, mission-orientation and ambition, are the same attributes needed to succeed in business,” according to the NaVOBA website.

It’s not unusual to see men and women around Kent County wearing the Air Force’s distinctive airman battle uniform complete with the green suede boots. What may be more difficult to spot are service members who have traded in their boots for business suits or other business attire.

You may not realize that Dover’s homebrew supply store or the clock repair shop in Milford are owned by veterans.

Delaware is full of vetrepreneurs and Kent County attracts its fair share.

“It’s a great place to retire,” said Jim Provo, a SBA veteran-owned business officer. “We have great beaches, no sales tax and low property tax.”

Being your own boss

Finding a job in a tight economy is one factor that often plays into veterans starting their own companies. However, John Murray decided early in his military career that he would strike out on his own after serving his country.

As Murray prepared to retire after 22 years in the Air Force, including three years stationed at Dover Air Force Base (DAFB), he never considered going the traditional job route.

“I have always wanted to start a business and I didn’t want to work for anyone else. I’m my own boss. I don’t have to put up with anything from anyone else,” he said.

Murray transitioned from being an Air Force aircraft maintenance officer to owning It’s About Time Clock Repair in Milford. It started as a hobby after he collected clocks from around the world.

Murray, a 51-year-old Dover resident, shares a store with Gary Manlove, another veteran. The store, which also sells antiques, opened in 2013, but Murray began his clock repair business in 2005. He did repairs at people’s homes or at his home shop.

The Long Island native devised a plan to start his own business while he was still in the Air Force. While stationed at DAFB from 1995 to 1998, he earned a master’s degree at Wilmington University.

“My master’s degree is in business administration so that, in itself, exposed me to everything I would be dealing with in owning a business,” he said.

Besides the degree, Murray took something else with him when he left Kent County to complete his time in the service. He, his wife and two children left with good memories of life here.

“It’s one of two places that actually felt like home,” Murray said.

The hometown atmosphere coupled with what he called a friendly business climate made Kent County his first choice.

“The cost of living was right. I couldn’t see myself going back to New York and paying all those taxes,” Murray said.

Manlove, who operates the antique portion of the Milford store, served in the National Guard before working for the telephone company. When he discovered Murray’s expert clock repair skills, they decided to join forces.

Beautiful furniture graces Manlove’s Choice Antiques. The sound of ticking clocks fills the air. On a quiet Sunday afternoon, Murray sits in a back room cleaning a German-made cuckoo clock before putting it back together.

He observes that the clock he’s working on and the jet engines he once repaired have a lot in common.

“Jet engines have gear trains [just like a clock]. All mechanical movements are pretty much the same. When you’re talking about a jet engine, you’re looking at much larger, of course, but the same principle applies,” he said.

Then he fits the small clock workings back into the clock case decorated with tiny figurines.

Something you’re passionate about

One of Cliff Pankonien’s hobbies from his early days in the Air Force also played a role in the type of business he decided to launch about a year ago. It was something he was passionate about doing.

The Philadelphia-area native, who refueled planes as a boom operator, was stationed at DAFB twice during his 20 years in the service. He said he knew during his first assignment here that he wanted to retire in Kent County. The desire to open a business came later.

After Pankonien retired in 1997, he eventually started working at an Internet hosting company in New Castle County. He worked there for five years. Then the daily commute began to wear on him.

He and his wife, Sylvia, a Realtor, began talking about starting a business. They turned to beer making, a hobby that Cliff had started when he was stationed in Okinawa, Japan.

As they talked about a potential business, Pankonien, 55, realized he had to shop online or travel several miles north or south from his home in Viola to purchase supplies for his home brew hobby.

Opening a supply store in Kent County made good business sense, Pankonien said. So he cashed in his 401K, found a reasonably-priced location and started the business.

Dover HomeBrew Supply on South Dupont Highway celebrated its first anniversary in September.

“It’s only a 6-mile drive so I can ride

my motorcycle to work a lot now and it’s

really relaxing,” he said, moments after rolling up to his shop on a sunny Saturday morning. “My main stress is how much [beer] yeast to order now.”

The well-organized business is located in a strip mall above a pizza shop. Locating on the second floor was one of the financial decisions Pankonien made as he sought to be frugal in his first year of business. A ground-level retail shop would have cost much more to rent.

“We kind of used common sense and [didn’t] spend extravagantly,” he said.

As the home brew season heats up this fall, Pankonien said he’s learning more each week about running a business. For instance, he’s learning about what to stock from his customers.

On that same Saturday morning last month, Pankonien greeted a return customer. He recalled that the last time the customer shopped there, he had asked for a certain kind of bottle top.  

Pankonien didn’t have any. This time, the new business owner walked over to a

 display wall and showed the customer the item that he’d requested before. The customer said he’d take two bags and then shopped around for the other items on his list.

Calling your own shots

While Murray and Pankonien started their businesses at the end of their military careers, Ethan and Emily Rodgers, are getting an early start as business owners.

It’ll be years before Ethan, who is a C-17 pilot stationed at DAFB, is ready to retire. However he and his wife already own a growing business.

Emily Rodgers was pregnant when they moved to Kent County in December 2012. Shortly after they arrived, their daughter, Nora was born and it wasn’t long before Emy+Annie, their baby toy and nursery items business, came along.

What started with Emily making toys for her daughter and a way to indulge her creativity while being a stay-at-home mom, led to the business.

“I absolutely love staying at home with Nora, but I discovered really fast that I’m not good at just sitting at home,” Emily said.

She began designing and making eco-friendly hypo-allergenic felt toys. Friends started asking her to make them for their kids or for shower gifts. That’s when Ethan encouraged her to launch the business. At first, she offered the toys and others items for sale online, but then retail stores began contacting her.

“It was slow for a few months, but then in October, [I had two stores contact me] and they wanted to know if they could sell my rattles in stores,” Emily said. “And all of the sudden the game changed.”

She went from making four or five toys a months to making about 85 a month. She had to hire two seamstresses to help with some of the work.

They’ met in college. He was a broadcast major and she was a classical art major. Neither have business degrees so they’ve reached out to friends and family for advice and help as they’re getting started.

“Thank goodness that I have a lot of friends who know a lot more about finances and business than I do,” Emily said.

Emily and Ethan said they’ll have to wait to see what happens next regarding any expansion of Emy+Annie. But Ethan admits the idea of owning a business when he eventually retires is appealing.

“The idea of doing your own thing and starting your own business, even if it’s something really small, is enticing and definitely something a lot of people are interested in when they get out [of the military].”

He said part of the appeal is calling your own shots.

Help with moving from boots to business

While John Murray had his master’s degree before he started his business, other service members leaving the military often need advice as they consider launching a business.

The SBA is right there to help. Every other month, as part of the DAFB’s Transition Assistance Program (TAP), service members who are leaving the military can take advantage of the Boots to Business program.

The program consists of eight modules and covers a lot of ground in two days.

“We’re a specialized two-day track just to help them start getting some of the skills and in contact with some of the resources that we have available to start a business,” said Jim Provo, a SBA veteran-owned business officer.

The first module is an introduction to business ownership that explores a lot of questions that any would-be business owner should consider.

“[It explores whether] running a business is something you should do,” Provo said. “And we cover several things, [such as] ‘Are you willing to take the risks of being a business owner?’ or ‘Are you willing to accept the responsibility of being a business owner?’ Do you have some money to start your business?”

Finances are a big first step for most new business owners and the SBA offers some assistance with that, as well.

The agency doesn’t directly provide business loans. Instead, the SBA provides financial backing so banks can give loans to small businesses that are on the cusp of qualifying for a loan, but need additional help. Some fees that the SBA normally charges for their services are waived for veterans.

The Boots to Business program also provides mentoring and help with developing a business plan. For more information, visit sba.gov/de.