Posted: May 27, 2012 by Chuck Matthews in Leadership, People, Startup

A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. ~Joseph Campbell

Officially proclaimed in 1868, Memorial Day was first observed when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate Soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. It is a day of remembrance, but also one of hope. I can still hear the voice of my grandfather, a World War I veteran, reciting the words of “We Shall Keep Faith” by Moira Michael on Decoration Day, as it was originally known:

We cherish too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies…

So too, our thoughts turn to the men and women in uniform who return home and begin life anew; continuing their education, raising families, some entering the workforce, others opting to follow the entrepreneurial path and start new ventures. In fact, it is estimated that in the U.S., there are between 3 and 4 million veteran-owned businesses. Globally recognized giants, FedEx and Nike, were founded by veterans Fred Smith (Marines) and Phil Knight (Army), respectively. Locally, entrepreneurs such as Richard Farmer, Dick Hannan, Charles Stix, and Jeff Lay have all earned our respect in uniform and as entrepreneurs. What lessons can we learn from these military veteran entrepreneurs or “vetrepreneurs”?

The value of military training…

One of my favorite definitions of success is getting knocked down nine times and getting up ten. If there is one lesson to take away, it is the resilience of military veterans. Without question, the drive, determination, and dedication needed to start a new venture is often formed in the basics of military training. Richard “Dick” Farmer often credits his military service in the U.S. Marines as formative in his later entrepreneurial pursuits turning his family industrial rag cleaning business from a negative net worth into the nation’s leading provider of corporate uniforms and more. Today, Cintas is a multi-billion dollar Fortune 500 company.

In Hannan’s Way – An Unlikely Trek Through Life by Greg Hoard, you will learn the always timely lesson that the customer is king, but the equally important lesson he also shares with Dick Farmer of taking care of your employees. Hannan’s Way is the compelling story of Cincinnati entrepreneur Richard D. Hannan, founder of Mercury Instruments in 1964, a venture that would become a leader in the natural gas measurement industry. This past May 14th, Hannan was awarded the “Lifetime Achievement Award in Entrepreneurship” from the University of Cincinnati. He joined the U.S. Marines during the Korean War where he quickly moved from Private to Captain in Marine Air Intelligence. He would go on to earn degrees from Tufts University and Wharton Graduate School, along with business certificates from Harvard and Stanford. At 82 years young, he is still a gifted speaker in my classes, sharing his lessons learned.

The other octogenarian Marine/Entrepreneur, whose life’s lessons I have come to know and greatly value is Charles Stix. He is the owner of Stixco, a manufacturer’s representative of shoe stock and items in the garment industry, which he founded after a 30 year career at U.S. Shoe. This past May 14th, the University of Cincinnati alum class of ’49, received the Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence. But after Walnut Hills High School and before UC and his successful entrepreneurial career, in July of 1943, he entered the U.S. Marine Corps, serving his country in the South Pacific and occupation of Japan during World War II. Much later, Mr. Stix, together with his friend Lincoln Pavey, fellow WWII vet and UC Alum and others, would be instrumental in the building of a Veteran’s Memorial in Indian Hill at the corner of Shawnee Run and Drake Roads. Veteran’s never stop giving.

Never say never…

Consider the inspirational story of Jeff Lay, Cincinnati native, TOPGUN fighter pilot, cancer survivor, entrepreneur. At the height of his military career, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Lay was diagnosed with an advanced form of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and told he would never fly again. That is something probably best not said to a TOPGUN fighter pilot with over 50 combat missions and 400 carrier landings. Clearly not one to give up, he chose to undergo an experimental form of chemotherapy, beat the cancer, and Lt. Col. Jeffery Lay returned to the cockpit fittingly on Veteran’s Day 1998. Retiring from active military duty in 2006, he would go on to become a successful businessman and entrepreneur. In my Entrepreneurship class, he shared the tried and true military lesson of plan, brief, execute, and debrief, among others. It was definitely a lesson learned. Never underestimate the will of a future entrepreneur. In fact, his new book written with New York Times bestselling author Patrick Robinson, Topgun on Wall Street, needs to be on your Summer reading list.

Thank you…

This Memorial Day, take time to remember the heroes who have given their lives in service to our country. Thank a veteran who served with these brave men and women and reflect on the lessons they give us in life and business. Till next time, all the best for continued entrepreneurial success!

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