What Vets Can Learn from a Coffee-Focused Recon Marine

Tom Davin (left), who joined Black Rifle Coffee Company as co-CEO, is shown with CEO and founder Evan Hafer. (Photo courtesy of Black Rifle Coffee Company).

He's had a storied career since leaving the Marines in 1985. He's worked in finance on Wall Street, helped run and expand successful companies like PepsiCo, was CEO of 5.11 Tactical and now is co-CEO of Black Rifle Coffee Company.

Recon vet Tom Davin is a Marine's Marine, and not just because he's been unstoppable in the corporate world.

After graduating magna cum laude from Duke University, Davin commissioned as an infantry officer and was selected for Marine Reconnaissance shortly after. Most notable and rare for a Marine infantry officer, he earned the U.S. Army Ranger tab and was the distinguished honor grad for his class. He also graduated as a parachute jumpmaster and Special Forces combat diver.

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So how'd he become so successful -- and what can today's transitioning vets learn from his experiences?

Battlefield to Boardroom

After leaving the service, Davin earned his MBA from Harvard Business School and spent the next 25 years helping companies outperform market expectations, mostly by using his experiences in the Corps as a compass to guide him.

"There are a lot of lessons from serving that can easily be applied in business. … You either learn fast, or you fail," Davin said. "What I do in business is a function of what I learned in the military, not so much at Harvard."

Davin attributes his success to the five-paragraph operation order that Marines lovingly call SMEAC: "S" for Situation, "M" for Mission, "E" for Execution, "A" for Administration/Logistics, "C" for Command/Signal. He says he took the efficiency of battlefield logistics and applied it to business.

Evan Hafer, an Army Green Beret veteran and CEO and founder of Black Rifle Coffee, said Davin has been on the board for two years and is "exceptional at scaling companies while maintaining the integrity of company culture."

Davin certainly has proven himself when it comes to scaling. Panda Express had 650 restaurants when he came on board as CEO in 2004; by 2010, it had expanded to 1,300. When he assumed the role of CEO at 5.11 Tactical, the company was the leading police uniform provider but had no brick-and-mortar presence. Now 50 dedicated 5.11 stores are across the nation, a feat for which he is directly responsible.

Veteran-Focused Servant Leadership

Davin said military leaders earn respect by fighting and bleeding with the troops they command. It's the same in business, he said. Leaders earn respect by rolling up their sleeves and pitching in where needed but are also able to delegate without micromanaging.

Black Rifle's extraordinary commitment to the veteran community is one of the main reasons why they asked Davin to become co-CEO, Hafer said.

"Scaling a culture is hard," Davin said. "We want to recruit talent that understands and shares our culture, and we'd like to see at least 50% of our employees to be veterans."

World War II veteran Antoine de Saint-Exupery once wrote, "When you want to build a ship, do not begin by gathering wood, cutting boards and distributing work, but rather awaken within men the desire for the vast and endless sea."

Davin's approach to scaling company culture is similar.

"I've honed a bit of a playbook around military leadership," Davin said. "No one wants to hear, 'When I was in the Marines, we did it this way,' but if you can wrap that message in the language of business, like leadership by example, or focus on the mission, and you can walk the talk, then it can become personal and inspire people to be their best."

Hafer said scaling the company will allow for more employment opportunities for veterans and act as a "force-multiplier effect."

"We want to be a beacon to show aspiring entrepreneurs that they can do this too," he said.

What's Next?

Black Rifle Coffee Company has experienced explosive growth, expanding more than 75% in 2018. But Hafer and Davin can't take a break. They've got partnerships to forge and want to open brick-and-mortar stores in the coming years, creating even more opportunities for veterans.

"When I started this company in 2014, I had $2,000 in my pocket and a passion for great coffee," Hafer said. "We've been head down and ass up in business, but we have to focus on curating a positive veteran culture while keeping the customer first."

Hafer and Davin said they are always looking for partnerships with veteran-owned or veteran-friendly vendors.

"When we meet with vendors, we always ask them two questions," Davin said. "How many veterans do you employ, and are you a member of our coffee club?"

He said the answers to these questions help them determine who they partner with or not.

A Green Beret and a Recon Marine Walk into a Bar ...

Hafer and Davin make a formidable team, and it's clear from their shared veteran-focused mission that they intend to do great things for the veteran community.

"When I joined 5.11, we were more focused on law enforcement, but now [Black Rifle Coffee Company] is really the center of the bull's-eye for me," Davin said. "It's all about veterans, having a good time along the way with some humor, celebrating the community and sharing a love of good coffee."

For job opportunities or more information on what BRCC is doing for the veteran community, visit BRCC's website.

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