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From Rifles and Bullets to Rollers and Paint

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Byron Barron is a retired command sergant major who joined the Army as an Airborne infantryman in 1981 and later served as a drill sergeant in Ft. Benning, and Senior Army Instructor at North Georgia College and State University. Since his retirement he has become the owner of CertaPro Painters of Northeast Georgia. We caught up with Mr. Barron to discuss his transition to civilian life, and get some insights on how to make the most of that transition.

Tell us about your transition from the military to your current job.

I retired at the end of September 2007, and during my last few months in the Army I did my due diligence so I ended up purchasing a franchise on November 15, about a month and a half after I retired, and I’ve been running it ever since then. The first year I didn’t make my sales goals due to the economy, but I’ve surpassed my sales goals by about 100 percent ever since. From my Army experience I knew how to run crews, and how to manage businesses, but what I didn’t know was how to run a business, which is a different thing. While I was in the Army I was fortunate to complete my education, and I exited with a master’s in human resource management , and I knew all the words, even if I didn’t understand all the words.

I knew I needed the type of business that would help me grow and learn about running a business. I dabbled a little bit with going to work for someone else, but the economy was such that the jobs in the career fields I was looking at wanted people with experience, and so I said to myself, “Okay, I saved all my life, paid down all my debt before I left the Army so I could own my own business, now’s the time.” I went ahead and purchased a franchise, and here we are, four years later.

What made you decide to work with CertaPro?

There were many facets of the business that attracted me. As a senior non-commissioned officer, I found that CertaPro used much the same the training management cycle as the Army to assist their franchisees. We went to corporate headquarters and learned some stuff, and then we went back and operationally applied what we had learned, and once we demonstrated efficiency based on our sales, we went back to corporate and learned a little more about the business, building on our skills that we already applied, and so on. So the training aspect was big for me.

The other aspect that really drew me was the support network. Every step along the way, there’s somebody there to assist me in whatever level of business management I’m at, whether it’s in sales or marketing or production or just general managing the numbers of a business. Someone has been there in the system so that I can call and say, “Hey I need a business card.” “Oh, look, here’s one, it’s already branded, don’t worry about it.” “I’m having problems with my profit and loss.” “Oh, here, talk to this person, we can get this squared away.” So their support and training was what brought me there.

What’s a typical day as a franchise owner like?

Just using today as an example, I get up around 0515, go to the gym from 6 to 7, and then I get on with my day. Today I had three estimates where I physically visit a customer and talk about the services that we provide, and then try to sell them on us painting the interior or exterior of their residence. The other thing we do is project management. I work with four crews. My daughter Valerie is working on a job with her crew, I’ve started a job with my own crew, and in-between estimates, I visit other crews just to make sure that they are on track. I receive calls from people who want to sell me materials and people who are in my support channel. Right after this interview I’m visiting with a commercial company and giving them an estimate for painting the interior of their offices. And then I’ll get home tonight around 5 and 6 and spend about an hour on email and that’s when I knock out one to three commercial estimates. For example, a Walmart’s being built and I want to knock out a commercial painting estimate for them tonight.

Do you have a rotating cast of characters on your team, or is it pretty stable?

It’s a very stable team. I’ve found the best way to manage people is to find and retain the best quality so I don’t have to retrain. I’ve had one of my crews all four years I’ve been in business. I was an infantryman in the Army and that’s what I’m doing. The only difference is that instead of messing with bombs and rifles and bullets, we’re messing with paint and rollers and drywall mud. Each crew has three to five men, and we’re spread over a vast terrain – the northeast corner of Georgia. They’re received both school and on-the-job training, and just like in the military, every now and then they might get lost. Maybe they’ll forget to do something, like putting a sign out, or bringing the tarps, and that’s where I come in. I inspect jobs, and try to check in daily, and keep them on track. It’s about keeping the customers happy, and happy customers lead to other happy customers.

What’s the biggest challenge of running the business?

Cash flow management. That’s been a bear. You get a lot of money in, but you owe a lot of people, so by the time you pay them off you’re low on money.  But other than that, I’ve been surprised to find that I’ve worked with all facets of an organization or business in my Army career. Exiting the army as an Airborne Ranger, I was worried that I was behind the educational level of my contemporaries, and what I found was absolutely the opposite. I had experience in more varied facets of the organization, I had more leadership training, and education apart from leadership – just  how to run a business, what to do and what not to do. I guess the most important aspect that I brought to the franchise was a willingness to learn, and that was a big feather in my cap, because in the military that’s what we do. We learn and then we execute what we learn; we put it in practice. After we get good at that, we change jobs, mix it up a little bit, and we go back to training. And that has really helped me in my business.

What other military skills would you say have proven to be valuable?

Army values. It’s amazing what I’ve found out here in the civilian sector – many people don’t have the same values that the military teaches and follows. Simple things like selfless service, doing things for other people not for gain, but just to do it. It was an eye-opener. I can’t speak for [other service branches] but I’m sure they follow the same values that the Army has. What I’ve found is just being myself has served me well because while I was in the service, it was beat into my head so many times: honesty, integrity, all the values. They have become one with me and that’s served me well. Another thing I’d tell someone who is retiring is to buy down debt. I took in an aggressive stance on my debt and got it bumped down our debt to such a point where I could personally fund my franchise. I didn’t have to go to a bank and say, “Hey, I need money...”

What other tips do you have for those transitioning out?

The first thing, and my wife said this to me but I didn’t listen to her, is to relax. Calm down. Take your time, don’t rush into something, just take it easy. The other thing is, use the military decision-making process you’ve learned to figure out your best course of action. Basically I wrote down on a piece of paper all the things I didn’t want to do, and all the things I like to do, and I applied the military decision-making process to all the businesses I was thinking about starting, used it as a sieve to sift through the chaos. There’s a lot of things happening when you leave the military – you’re moving, you’re getting out so it’s a happy and a depressing time, kids are going to college, all these things are happening. To bring a method to the madness and use the military decision-making process really helped me figure out what I needed to do and what direction I needed to go in.

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