PALM BAY — When leaving the military as a specialized diesel mechanic, Ray Suarez didn’t set out to be a small-business owner.
Suarez always loved cars, just like his dad, and he had a natural way around engines and automobiles. He figured he would be working at an auto shop as a mechanic or fixing vehicles at a dealership.
Fate stepped in and changed things.
Armed with G.I. Bill benefits, Suarez was accepted into a highly competitive automotive training program at the Universal Technical Institute in Orlando. And it was there he met an Army mechanic, Lee Yearwood of Palm Bay, also undergoing training.
The result was Suarez and Yearwood opening their business, Monsta Inc. Performance LLC in Palm Bay.
“I guess at some point, I always had it in the back of my mind to own my own business,” said the 27-year-old Suarez, who spent eight years as a diesel mechanic in the Marines before his honorable discharge as a sergeant.
“But I really wasn’t thinking about it too much when I left the Marines,” he said.
While the business world so far has worked out for Suarez and the 24-year-old Yearwood, who still serves in the Army Reserve once a month, their experience shows a strong link between individuals with military backgrounds and entrepreneurship.
A report last fall in the ArmyTimes said more than 200,000 people are discharged from the U.S. military each year, and advocates say they often possess qualities that make good entrepreneurs: resourcefulness, a taste for risk-taking and a can-do attitude.
Nonprofit groups, state governments and U.S. agencies are all providing business training aimed at giving them new purpose and easing their transition to civilian life.
Already, veterans are well-represented in the entrepreneurial ranks. Nearly one in 10 small businesses are veteran-owned, and retired service members are at least 45 percent more likely than those without active-duty military experience to be self-employed, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.
As troops return from Afghanistan and other locations, they get help in finding work, but veteran entrepreneurs go so far as to provide a jolt to the U.S. economy.
“We think this is an opportunity where we’re going to have a lot of veterans who have the right skills to be entrepreneurs,” said Rhett Jeppson, associate administrator for veterans’ business development at the SBA. “We can help prepare them for the opportunities out there.”
Unlike GIs who played a famed role in growing the U.S. economy after World War II, however, this generation is returning to the worst economic slump since the Great Depression.
Both Suarez and Yearwood were “top-tier” students able to get accepted into the BMW and Nissan advanced programs at Universal Technical, said Doreen Overstreet, a spokeswoman for the institute.
About 15 percent of Universal Technical’s enrollment has a military background, she said, and often they form bonds based on their shared background in the armed services.
Maybe it was such a bond that got the two solider mechanics talking, recognizing each others’ talents and common interests.
“We both have fast cars,” Yearwood said. “It was crazy. We were just standing there talking and I said, ‘Hey. Let’s open a shop.’ I had a small shop at the time. He was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ ”
The pair also put their energies into building a race car to compete in a specialized field called “drifting,” which involves not speed, but tire-squealing and sideways-careening over a course at the edge of control.
Both men credit the military with teaching them the personal habits that lead to their success at Monsta.
“They teach you a lot of discipline,” Yearwood said of his military routine.
“You get to wake up early every morning,” he said. “That keeps you on track. You have that integrity from the military to do good work. That’s what I’m trying to do here.”
The military also gave them a shared vocabulary and the need for careful planning and preparation for undertaking a difficult job.
“You have to have a plan before you do something,” Yearwood said. “That comes into play definitely. We plan what we’re going to do to the car, and we work out the right way to get it done.”
Running a business
What the military didn’t teach them was the finer points of running a business operation and measuring profits against expenses.
Those lessons come from learning on the job and absorbing advice when they get it. Suarez’ friends have also been a big help.
“My girlfriend’s family runs its own business,” Suarez said. “I learned a lot from them.”
They’re also helping the pair with bookkeeping.
A varied clientele
Their “drifting” car, which they race in Orlando on weekends, has drawn plenty of customers to their shop. But only about half their customers come in for performance work.
“It’s word-of-mouth and business cards,” Yearwood said. “We mostly do performance work, but they bring their minivans in too.”
While the two learned much automotive science in the military, they realized there’s one vehicle they’d rather avoid at their shop. That’s the standard vehicle known as the Humvee.
“Way too much time,” involved with working on the Humvee said Suarez, who was stationed in Okinawa, Japan; Camp Pendleton, Calif.; and Quantico, Va.
Yearwood, who still works on them when he does his once-a-month guard duty in Miami, simply added, “I don’t like them.”