Risking Life and Limo
When business-owning reservists are called for long tours in Iraq, their companies can become a casualty of war.
VILLAS, N.J. (FORTUNE Small Business Magazine) - Jon Hinker didn't do it to save the world. He signed up with the New Jersey National Guard 14 years ago because he felt it an obligation for a man to serve his country. Mostly he cleaned up after hurricanes and floods, going away for a week or two at a time. When terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center, Hinker spent two months at the site. Helping his country inspired him. But then he was called up to Iraq, and everything changed.
Hinker got the call at 6 P.M. on Feb. 3, 2003. The following day his unit would head to the war. That night, like the times before, he arranged for his brother and ex-wife to take over his car service, Victorian Cape Limousine. Started three years earlier with $300 and a charge card, the company was bringing in about $120,000 a year. Slipping into his combat boots the next morning, Hinker figured that he'd be home in four months at most.
But four months turned into six months, then a year.
"The first three months I got letters saying the business was fine," he recalls, sitting at his kitchen table one recent morning in Villas, N.J., a blue-collar coastal town dotted with crab shacks and tackle shops. "But it was actually going under."
His cars were either running late or not running at all. Client calls went unanswered. And customers, used to a dependable service, started to leave.
When he returned home 16 months later, his company had lost 75% of its business to competitors, and Hinker, a 35-year-old father of one, was $25,000 in personal debt. To pay the bills, he sold four company vehicles and picked up a graveyard shift guarding prisoners at the local jail.
"I sleep about two hours some nights," he says, taking a swig of black coffee to stave off the fatigue and wet his throat, which was chemically burned in a Mosul bombing. "I lost a ton going over to Iraq. But I want to get my business back. So you do what you gotta do."
In March 2003, FSB published a story about self-employed reservists who worried about their businesses if they should be mobilized for long stretches. As the war on terror lumbers into its fourth year, many of those fears of business turmoil and failure have been realized by some of the estimated 55,000 small-business owners in the Guard and Reserve. The U.S. military leans on them to fill out the military ranks and serve tours of duty that far exceed historical precedents.
And while government and military officials acknowledged in 2003 that they needed to better support self-employed reservists, few, if any, changes have been made.
"Almost anyone who is self-employed comes back from the war to find his business in shambles," says Patrick Heavey, director of the St. Louis Veterans Business Resource Center (www.vetbiz.com), a nonprofit that provides business counseling to veterans and members of the Guard and Reserve. "It's a problem."
The 1994 Federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, or Userra, in military shorthand, guarantees reservists and Guardsmen their jobs when they come home. No such promises are made to the self-employed.
A 2005 report by the Congressional Budget Office notes that some of the strains a business might face when its owner is away on a long tour include diminished sales, slowed production, and increased costs from hiring a substitute staff.
The Army Reserve has called up Missourian Tom Gotsis three times in the past five years.
"I thought I'd be called up once every four or five years," says the 48-year-old dentist, who joined the Reserve in 1992. "My business could withstand that." For each of the three 90-day stints, his St. Louis practice bled $250,000. The frequent tours have prevented him from paying off loans that would have long ago allowed him to buy his business outright and take on a partner. Instead, he is about $300,000 in debt.
Anecdotally, medical professionals in private practice are the type of reservist business most commonly affected. "It was an honor to serve my country," Gotsis insists, "but it hit me hard financially--tremendously hard."
Critics point out that the soldiers were made aware of their obligations. While most reservists knew what they were getting into, points out Lt. Gen. Dennis M. McCarthy, executive director of the Reserve Officers Association (www.roa.org) in Washington, D.C., the reality of the Reserves has changed dramatically in the past four years.
Before 9/11, the commitment was comparable to that of an amateur basketball league. One weekend a month, two weeks a year--with the occasional storm call--was the norm for decades. Tours today, however, average around 300 days, making the Reserves less viable for business owners.
Jeff Forrestall, one of the reservists we profiled in 2003, reluctantly left the Reserves this year out of fear for his accounting firm. "I was worried it would have created a financial hardship," he says. "Heck, if I'm gone, there's no one here to run things."
Organizations such as the Veterans Corp. in Alexandria, Va. (see sidebar), advise guardsmen and reservists on pre- and post-mobilization, helping with everything from general business know-how to loans. Still, many familiar with the issue admit that there is no way to fully prepare a business for the extended absence of its owner.
"If your business is two people and one of you has to go away, then 100% of your business falls to one person," says Walt Blackwell, president and CEO of the Veterans Corp. "That's not easy."
To mitigate some of the financial challenges, the Small Business Administration offers a disaster loan, but it was notoriously difficult to secure even before the agency was swamped by Hurricane Katrina. Since the program's inception in 2001, the SBA has received more than 400 applications and issued 249 loans, totaling about $22 million.
With the help of Patrick Heavey's group in St. Louis, Gotsis received a $180,000 loan under the SBA program to cover expenses for his last three-month tour, which concluded in April 2005. Hinker, however, was turned down--twice.
"They said I had bad credit. And I told them my bad credit happened when I was away," he says, referring to the $9,000 a month in car and insurance payments on which he began to default after his mobilization. "I said, 'Look at my credit before the war. I paid all my bills on time.' They told me, 'Sorry, but we do appreciate what you did for your country.'"
Other financial salves are in the works. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Small Business, introduced legislation that would offer a tax credit of as much as $21,000 to cover pay gaps and allow absentee business owners to hire temporary replacements.
And mobilization insurance, which would cover some of the financial losses a business suffers in the absence of its reservist owner, continues, after several years, to be explored. That insurance could take five years to be realized, supposes Capt. Marshall Hanson, director of legislation and naval services at the Reserve Officers Association. Legislation could come earlier, though, he adds. With reservists in Iraq dying at a higher rate than active-duty soldiers, "that builds sympathy in Congress."
Still, financial aid won't help everyone. Reservist Joe Witte, 32, recently returned after a one-year tour to Yardley, Pa., to find his graphic-design firm, Centric Source, on the verge of revolt. Witte had planned to manage the firm from his bunker in Iraq, but there was hardly time to call, let alone e-mail, his four employees or his partner. In his absence, new people were hired, and the company moved on without him.
"I thought everyone at the office would say, 'Hey, great to see you,'" he says. "But it was like 'We were doing things this way for so long, why are you coming home and changing it?'"
Witte's return caused months of internal head butting, which threatened to derail the company. There were afternoons spent passionately debating the company's direction. Tense e-mails flew back and forth. One employee nearly left. Eventually the company stabilized, but "it was hard," says Witte.
Surprisingly, even with all his business woes, Gotsis has chosen to remain in the Reserves. But Hinker, who served 14 years with his New Jersey unit, says the stress of longer call-ups has forced him to call it quits. "I just couldn't afford to do it anymore," he says. Witte, too, left in November.
Hinker, built like a linebacker with a shiny bald head, is still struggling to get his business back to its pre-call-up level. Most days he works guard duty at the prison from 11:30 P.M. to 7:30 A.M., sleeps a few hours, and then, coffee in hand, heads to work at Victorian Cape Limousine. "I always had the dream of starting my own business--you know, making something of myself," he says. "Hopefully, that works out."
Vets help other vets needing business help. Read more.
To write a note to the editor about this article, click here.