Army veteran, successful businessman shares advice on succeeding in the civilian business community
Michael Denehy, 46, is a retired lieutenant colonel, having served with the U.S. Army Special Forces, Green Berets. He works at Fort Benning as an assistant program manger with Vertex Solutions.
His wife, Kathy, 42, is a major in the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps. She is deployed overseas in Korea through July.
Between the two of them, they have nine overseas deployments and 32 years of combined military service.
Michael Denehy said, as far as he knows, his wife is the only active duty woman in the country to own a brewery.
“I’m the visionary. She’s the designer, and we have a general manager who manages the day to day,” Denehy said.
The couple join more than 2 million U.S. veterans who have become business owners, often times using knowledge they’ve gained in government-supported programs such as Boots to Business, which is for potential entrepreneurs.
Veterans own about 9 percent of all American businesses, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy. That’s a total of 2.52 million small businesses with collective receipts of $1.14 trillion.
With 694,168 veterans living in Georgia, the state is prime location for possible veteran-owned businesses, including in Chattahoochee County, where Fort Benning straddles the Georgia-Alabama state line, and in Houston County, where Robins Air Force Base is located.
Denehy’s approach to launching a business has been much different than many aspiring veteran entrepreneurs. He didn’t attend any classes or earn a business degree. He’s relied on books, the internet and his willingness to take risks.
Their West Point location is a small seven-barrel brewery, the first in Georgia to use a self-serve beer system where patrons pour their own beers, Denehy said.
They operate out of a 13,000-square-foot warehouse on 4th Avenue.
“It’s a small brewery for a small community,” Denehy said. “So it fits. It’s the right size.”
“We did it all ourselves — self financed. That was important to us because we wanted to maintain complete control of the business. And we have.”
For their Columbus location, Denehy said they’re looking to open more of “beer garden-like” venue focused on outdoor seating that would require a wait staff. It would be much smaller, having only a 3,000-square-foot footprint.
“It will be a food truck park as well as a brewery with outdoor seating — more of an outdoor venue,” he said.
The couple chose a beer garden feel because, “We think it’s part of the market that’s lacking in Columbus ... I’ve just lived there for a couple of years and it’s something that I’ve always scratched my head and wondered why we didn’t have one,” he said. “It’s what the customer is looking for these days.”
The couple resides in Valley, Alabama, about a 15-minute drive from the West Point location and where Kathy is originally from.
Denehy said they ventured into small business ownership “because I like adventure.”
“Entrepreneurialism requires you to take extreme risks, and I like that,” Denehy said. “I like the fact that I have skin in the game, and I like being able to control my own destiny.”
Why a brewery?
“I was a home brewer for about 10 years before doing this,” Denehy said. “I love the history of beer. I love the social aspect of beer, and it seemed like a line of work I could get into and make people happy and maybe make some money in the process ... It was just a challenge I set for myself several years ago.”
When asked how his military skills translated to the business world, Denehy replied, “Very poorly.”
“We are a compliance-based organization in the military. It’s just part of our culture. We do what we’re told, and even special operations where we are less so — we’re much more risk takers, but there’s still a standard operating procedure for almost everything in the military. Out in the civilian world, there is not a standard operating procedure for anything. … So the civilian world is really a create your own adventure,” Denehy said.
“I will say that my job in particular being special operations and being a high risk individual in the military, that did translate perfectly because I’m essentially not afraid,” Denehy said, “I ask myself all the time, ‘Is anybody dying?’ The answer‘s, ‘No.’ Then, I generally don’t freak out.“
When Denehy retired in 2017, he immediately relocated and started working on the business.
“I really was a I’m-going-to-learn-this-as-I go type of guy,” Denehy said. “That’s how I’ve operated my entire life. I figured it out on my own with my friend, Google.”
Denehy said he had to become a self-made expert on small business finance, learn how to relate to other small business owners who might be more process-oriented than results-oriented and understand that relationships play a huge factor in the civilian world.
He offered some advice for transitioning military.
“They must do two things. They must find a sense of purpose when they get out. That is imperative,” Denehy said. “And No. 2, it is in their best interest, and a very close second, for them to find a mentor.
“Someone, a fellow veteran, who has walked their path, who can help negotiate the challenges they are going to face; not challenges in the business sense but the challenges ... in the sense of leaving the military and entering civilian life,” Denehy said.
Denehy said that’s what he did.
“The best part of owning my own business is it gave me a sense of purpose after I lost my sense of purpose from the military,” Denehy said. “By owning your own business, by employing other people, by contributing to your local community, you can find that sense of purpose again.”
Scottie Johnson served 25 years in the U.S. Army’s Field Artillery Division, including deployments in Iraq, Bosnia and twice in Afghanistan as a 13B cannon crew member.
On a recent Saturday night, the 51-year-old was doing something he said many people, including his old Army buddies, find surprising. He was preparing a three-course, gourmet dinner in a Warner Robins couple’s home as they entertained a business colleague, a client and their wives.
Johnson never lifted a spatula in the Army and his wife was responsible for most of the cooking at home. But Johnson was mesmerized by cooking shows.
“I was just fascinated with watching celebrity chefs on TV,” said Johnson, whose last Army assignment was as a senior military instructor at Fort Valley State University. “That’s what kind of fascinated me: the presentation of the food.”
Today, Johnson, who lives in Kathleen, is best known as “Chef Scottie.”
When he retired in October 2015, Johnson used his post 9/11 GI Bill to enroll in the Culinary Arts program at Macon’s Helms College, where he rose to the top of his class and later served as a chef instructor assistant.
“I didn’t know I was going to fall in love with it until I actually started school,” said Johnson, owner of Blessed and Highly Flavored Cuisine. “Once I started, it became a love of mine and a passion. I just excelled at it.”
The aroma of garlic wafted through the air as Johnson sauteed wild mushrooms in Matt and Teresa Hummel’s kitchen.
The fine-dining menu Johnson was preparing at the Warner Robins home included strawberry mixed green salad with feta cheese, candied walnuts, cranberries with a creamy Italian vinaigrette, pan-seared sea bass and Alaskan salmon with a coconut balsamic glaze, served with fresh spinach, mushrooms and mascarpone polenta. And, for dessert, banana fosters sour cream cake.
The Hummel’s 11-year-old son, Roman, who enjoys baking and helping in the kitchen, assisted Johnson by slicing the mushrooms. The boy’s mom had given him a cooking lesson with Johnson as a Christmas gift.
Roman said he enjoyed that experience and learned some cooking tips such as how to slice food without cutting your fingers. Teresa Hummel was so impressed with Johnson’s interaction with Roman that she asked him back to prepare an intimate business dinner.
“I’m comfortable with him being around my children, in my home, and he is such a professional, and warm and friendly,” Hummel said. “So, he is the kind of person you want to be around your customers as well.
“And I think it’s affordable for the service that’s being provided and especially the quality of service being provided,” she said.
A dinner can range from $275-$500 or more depending on the number of courses and the desired menu, Johnson said. He’s created fine dining experiences for anniversaries, birthdays, Valentine’s Day, other holidays and special events.
“It’s not a catering business with 100-plus people,” Johnson said. “I like to keep it intimate in people’s homes, or whatever private venue you may have.”
Cooking in a black T-shirt with “chef’ on the front and pants with doughnuts printed on them, Johnson later donned a traditional white chef coat and toque when he served the dinner.
“The great thing for me about tonight is that I’m not doing all the cooking,” Hummel said with a laugh. “I actually get to enjoy everyone.”
Johnson’s wife of nearly 14 years, Lowanda, helps set everything in its place for Johnson, including special chef knives, and if desired by the hostess, she’ll professionally set and decorate the table.
His wife first heard of his desire to become a chef at his retirement ceremony when he announced that he was planning to go to culinary school, Scottie Johnson said.
“My wife was the one that was like, ‘Culinary school? You mean you’re not going to get a job?’“ he recalled with a laugh.
Lowanda Johnson said, “I didn’t expect to like cooking, coming up with recipes, even running a business, that wasn’t something that I visualized doing until he started talking about it when he retired, and I was like, oh my gosh, he’s very passionate about this. This is something I need to just get on board and support my husband with.”
Some of Chef Scottie’s skills outside of the kitchen were gained in a Small Business Administration’s Boots to Business class where he learned about marketing, networking, grants and how others have been successful in business.
That program was offered for a couple of hours over several days at the Georgia Veterans Education Career Transition Resource Center in Warner Robins.
Johnson recommends the program for retired veterans who are considering starting a business.
“I finished the class and took the tools I learned from that and implemented that into my business and now it’s growing,” Johnson said. “Boots to Business helped me a lot. It helped me grow my business. It really did.”
Doing something that he was passionate about was the main driver for Johnson, who said he “stepped out in faith.”
“My faith in God is what pretty much gives me inspiration to do the things I do, and He hasn’t let me down because I’m just excelling in what I do and everything has fallen into place,” Johnson said.
Johnson recently revisited the Boots to Business Reboot class at VECTR. This time, Johnson was the guest speaker.
He offered this advice for participants, “Take the tools you learn and use them, and it’ll work.”
Your Grill Cleaner
Mark Kloberdanz went through Boots to Business twice when he was transitioning from military to civilian life because he found the classes so useful.
The retired U.S. Marine Corps master sergeant was part of the HMLA-773 Red Dawgs helicopter squadron once housed at Robins. His background is mostly in avionics, but he was also a recruiter and did some computer training.
He now owns and operates Your Grill Cleaner, a mobile barbecue grill cleaning business. He describes his wife, Tricia, as his business consultant who helps him with some of the record keeping and brainstorming ideas.
“After 26 years in the Marine Corps, I really kind of knew I didn’t want to take a 9-to-5 job, so I was really looking for something I could do on my own time,” Kloberdanz said.
Kloberdanz searched the internet for veteran-friendly entrepreneurial opportunities and came across an individual in New Jersey who had a similar business. Kloberdanz was able to purchase his business plan that showed him how to set up his business.
The couple then attended traditional two-day Boots to Business classes that are offered on military installations.
They were in a class in 2015 and again in 2016 at the Airman Family Readiness Center at Robins Air Force Base conducted by the University of Georgia’s Small Business Development Center.
“The biggest guidance that I would have is to sign up for that Boots to Business class, but go there with an open mind ... before they get a hard-set business plan,” Kloberdanz said. “That’s kinda of what we did. We went before we started the business.”
VECTR in Warner Robins has presented the classes since May 2018. A two-person team that’s augmented by the rest of the VECTR staff does that training on military installations, said Patricia Ross, the center’s director.
“Veterans have all the tools that they’ve learned in the military to succeed as a business person, as their own boss,” said Ross, a retired Air Force colonel. “To be able to help folks kind of realize that they’ve got what it takes and give them the steps they need to take post-military service to make their dreams a reality is very exciting for us. We love doing this mission.”
The VECTR team travels to nine military installations in Georgia, including Robins and Fort Benning, as well as three bases in South Carolina, to teach the class, said Tim Craig, program manager for the Veterans Business Outreach Center at VECTR.
In addition to going over “a litany of information to help them understand what it takes to start a business” VECTR has a host of resource partners who can help transitioning military, Craig said.
Julie Thompson, Transition Assistance Program coordinator at Robins, remembered Kloberdanz from when he came through the Boots to Business class.
“He just always sticks in my mind when I think about the small business classes because he was so excited to go through them and get the information for what he needed to do to do his second career — I guess you could say — his dream job,” Thompson said.
The class takes participants through the whole process of starting a business from developing a business plan to marketing to financing, Kloberdanz said.
“Obviously, my avionics training had nothing to do with my grill cleaning, but my work ethic, my leadership skills, even though I don’t have other employees ... the qualities that I gained and honed while I was in the Marine Corps really made this a lot easier for me,” Kloberdanz said.
When Kloberdanz arrives at a home with his mobile business, he brings his equipment, including a steam tank with a degreaser that heats up to 212 degrees. The grate, burn covers, anything that comes off the grill, is soaked in the tank to remove the grease, he said.
While all the parts are soaking, Kloberdanz uses a kitchen cleaner to scrub the grill by hand and then vacuums all the grease, grime and water out of the bottom of the grill. He then uses a low-pressure steam unit that kicks out 325 degree stream to blast any grease and grime out of crevices. Once all the parts are cleaned, he coats the cooking surfaces with a peanut oil or Crisco for those with peanut allergies.
The cleaning takes about three hours and costs from $100 from your basic portable grill to about $200 and up for larger grills, Kloberdanz said.
“My service is ... making the grill safer, it’s enhancing the flavor of their food, it’s getting rid of the unhealthy stuff in your food ... and I’m helping people save money in the long run because they’re not having expensive grill repairs or grill replacement,” Kloberdanz said. “I feel like I’m providing all of that for my customer.
“That’s what does it for me and keeps me in it and what makes me happy to be doing this job,” he said. “I mean, cleaning grills is dirty, nasty work. I come home filthy. If this job was not (my passion) I would not be doing it.”
The seeds of owning a business were sown into Joe Wilburn’s mind and heart by his parents, Joe and Merrie Wilburn, when he was a child.
His father taught him about penny stocks as a young boy. His mom talked to him about the value of property ownership.
“At a very young age, we played Monopoly as a family, and everything I know about the real estate business and buying and selling of property, I think 90 percent of it I learned around the Monopoly board from my parents,” said Wilburn, who served 26 years in the U.S. Air Force.
Now Wilburn, 54, is opening the Pond restaurant in Warner Robins.
His father worked in the insurance business for about 20 years before opening a bar. His parents later closed the bar and opened another small business, an insurance adjusting company.
“I got quite a bit of my experience and drive from my parents,” Wilburn said.
Wilburn said he initially planned to serve in the military in human resources for a few years before entering business. He left active duty for a stint in the reserve and to lead sales full-time in his parent’s company before returning to active duty.
Earlier, when he was 21, he bought a condominium using the federal Department of Veterans Affairs loan process at his first active duty station at Henderson, Nevada.
Additionally, while Wilburn was in the military, he and two college buddies bought a three-unit apartment complex, which they still own. They had made a commitment to each other in college to save $100 a month to purchase real estate together, and they had amassed $5,000 each when they purchased the complex.
While in the military, Wilburn earned a master’s degree in human resource management.
He retired in 2012 as director and commander of the Air Force Reserve Recruiting Service at Robins. His global recruiting team included 465 personnel in 160 offices located throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia.
“From the military, I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is the value of teamwork, how to work on a team, how to lead and manage teams that understand the essential nature of building a team to do anything beyond yourself whether it’s raising a family, getting involved with a church, getting involved with a business, it’s going to be a team effort,” Wilburn said.
Wilburn and his team are restoring a long-vacant restaurant building along Leisure Lake off Moody Road. The restaurant will serve breakfast and lunch with dinner eventually expected to be added.
“What we hope to bring to Warner Robins and Middle Georgia is a modern approach to a great American breakfast,” Wilburn said. “We’re bringing in new flavors and doing eggs and waffles and eggs Benedict in new and different ways ... chef inspired recipes, locally-grown ingredients. All those things that make a great breakfast.”
His wife, Warner Robins attorney Monica Wilburn, has a passion for decorating. “So, at the right time, we’re going to turn her loose on the decorating,” Wilburn said.
Wilburn plans to be at the restaurant in the evenings and weekends. He’ll keep his full-time consulting job.
The restaurant’s general manager, Timothy Chambliss, has run other restaurants, including Danielle’s New Orleans Bistro in Warner Robins and the Texas Cattle Company and the Downtown Grill in Macon.
When Wilburn starting thinking about retirement years in advance, he had imagined himself in real estate and moving back to Los Angeles where he and wife are both from.
“But when we got here, we fell in love with the community and raised our children here,” said Wilburn, who has lived in Warner Robins since 2007.
He started focusing on the restaurant industry when he noticed a niche in the marketplace he felt he could fill.
“There are not many independent restaurants in Warner Robins,” Wilburn said.
As an owner of an independent restaurant “you get a lot more opportunity to express your independence in what you want to bring personally to the table,” he said.
On the flip side, though, it’s risky, Wilburn said, because with a franchise you already have a proven business model that’s been successful with marketing, tested recipes and processes for training, managing and operating, Wilburn said.
But Wilburn used skills he learned in the military to develop his business plan and he recruited people within the industry to help him. He’s also an avid reader.
“Anytime I’m picking up books, it’s generally nonfiction, business-related and either related to building teams or management or leadership or real estate, and, obviously, here for the last several years, it’s been restaurant leadership, restaurant management,” he said.
Wilburn hopes that the restaurant will be ready to open this summer or by fall at the latest.
For more information about Boots to Business, contact Craig at 478-218-3934, or email@example.com.