Business Owner and Cancer Survivor

Air Force veteran Lorna Ross

In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness month, we feature veteran Lorna Ross, who served as a JAG officer in the Air Force for five years. Shortly after her discharge in 2002, Ross was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent many aggressive surgeries that finally proved to be successful. After two decades of a dynamic professional career, Ross has taken on the challenge of owning a business, and launched ShelfGenie, a franchise concept that designs and installs custom shelving in homes.

According to your bio you were an attorney before joining the Air Force – what led you to join, and what positives did you get out of your military career? 

My father was on active duty during the Korean War. He went onto law school and while in the Reserves, he served as a military judge and retired a full-bird Colonel. When I was young, I heard stories about the Air Force, the JAG Corps, and the cases that he handled. I was intrigued and inspired. After practicing in the civilian world for a few years, I decided to pursue the opportunity to broaden my legal horizons while serving my country. Sadly, my father passed away when I was 14 so he did not have a chance to see me wearing the uniform as proudly as he did.

I handled cases as a junior JAG that I never would have in the civilian world. On the prosecution side and then on defense, I was lead or assistant counsel on drug, child sexual abuse, homosexual assault, larceny, and rape cases. While stationed at MacDill AFB in Tampa, FL, I traveled throughout the East and South handling cases at other bases. I requested a PCS back home when my mom got sick. When I was stationed at the Los Angeles AFB, I handled mostly claims, medical malpractice and contracts.

While at LAAFB, I volunteered to serve on the base Honor Guard out of March ARB. That was the highlight of my career. I felt that by being part of honoring those who served and have passed, I was truly giving back. One of the most meaningful ceremonies that I participated in was for the "unclaimed vets". The only attendees were a chaplain, a rep from the VA, the Honor Guard, a rep from the national cemetery and a few maintenance people. The ceremony  was held once a month and the chaplain would simply read the name of the vet, their branch of service, and their rank. After each name was read, a bell was rung. It broke my heart that so many people died alone without any family or friends and it was an honor for me to have been part of that.

Since you left service you've been a program manager and now a business owner. What was the attraction of being a manager/owner and how did you get yourself going on this career path? 

After I left the Air Force, I decided that I did not want to go back into the practice of law in the civilian world. It no longer seemed a fit with my personality because I wanted to work with people, not against them. A recruiting firm that specialized in placing junior military officers arranged several interviews and I chose program management with Honeywell Utility Solutions, a specialized division within Honeywell International. While there, I managed energy and water conservation programs for the local utilities. I had complete responsibility over all facets of my projects including financial, accounting, hiring, training, implementation, sales, marketing, customer service, processes, reporting, invoicing, etc. It felt like I was running my own company.

In early 2009, I lost my fiancée in a plane crash. That was such a devastating event in my personal life so it wasn't until 2012 that I felt ready emotionally, financially and mentally to venture beyond the corporate world and be a business owner. I felt that I had the skills, motivation, and enthusiasm necessary for success.

What made you decide to ally with Shelfgenie? What resources and assistance have they given you as you've set up your business? 

During my research into business opportunities, I was very fortunate to have been referred to one of the top franchise consultants in the country. He delved into my abilities, personality, wants and needs and after several weeks of phone calls and homework, he presented me with three different business models. I did due diligence on all three at the same time and through that process, ShelfGenie rose to the top. Other ShelfGenie franchisees spoke very highly of the leadership and home office and almost all were extremely happy with their decision. I liked their established processes, their top of the line product, and how the solutions they design improve their customer's lives by providing better access, space and organization.

ShelfGenie provides an eight-day training course, countless other trainings, an extensive intranet with webinars, and numerous resources to not only get started, but more importantly, to support growing my business.

Can you describe a typical "day in the life" for you as a business owner? 

Most days include a combination of design consultations with customers, managing marketing activities, handling the accounting and financial pieces, and communicating with my staff and the home office.

Can you talk about surviving breast cancer, and how it has impacted your career and your outlook? 

Both my mom and grandmother passed away from breast cancer so it wasn't a surprise that I was diagnosed. I just wasn't ready at the age of 36. I made a decision to deal with it aggressively because I wanted to live a long and full life. I already possessed a passion for living, traveling, taking advantage of opportunities and having no regrets. To all of that, I added a greater inner strength from being a survivor. I felt first hand that life is fragile and unpredictable. The obstacles we are handed do not build character, they reveal it.

Your new business has been off the ground for a week now. How's it been going? 

So far, it's been really good! While doing start-up tasks, I've had the pleasure of handling some customers that were waiting for me to open my business in Los Angeles. I am very eager to see their kitchens transformed after their shelves are custom built and how much happier they will be after installation by being able to access the stuff in their cabinets.

What skills and experiences in the military proved to be helpful for you in your civilian career? What were some of the challenges you faced as you made the transition? 

By our nature, military personnel are structured and are more rules-oriented. Those traits are an ideal fit for the franchise system because to be successful, you need to follow the established processes. The key is to take advantage of what has been proven to work. The system is designed to be replicated in any market and another key advantage is that the fellow franchisees provide a built-in network of support and guidance.

I am also very grateful for the program management and project implementation skills that I developed at Honeywell. That experience deepened my foundation and developed my leadership and management strengths. Surprisingly, one of the biggest challenges I faced after leaving the military was explaining to prospective employers why I didn't want to be an attorney anymore! 

What advice or tips would you give transitioning service members who might be interested in your field, or in owning a business? 

My advice is to take the leap!  Their level of responsibility while in the military, their goal oriented mindset and their tenacity create the perfect foundation for taking charge of their own future. To quote Mark Twain, twenty years from now you will be more disappointed in the things you didn't do than the things you did do.

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