HELENA — For many members of the armed forces, the prospect of leaving the military is a daunting task. According to a Pew Research Center survey, nearly 50 percent of post-9/11 veterans said they had a somewhat or very difficult time readjusting to civilian life, compared to under 25% for pre-9/11 veterans.
Though like many civilians, veterans readjusting to civilian life have dreams and aspirations. For some, that dream is owning a business.
Dustin Frost, director of the Big Sky Veterans Outreach Center, helps that dream become a reality for veterans across Montana, Wyoming, and Utah. Frost noted veterans are extremely capable business owners, all they do at the Big Sky VBOC is help facilitate that dream.
“There's 200,000 service members that leave the military every year. When they leave, half of the time they're going to a community that they're not from," said Frost over Zoom. "So, they don't have a professional network, that most people when they start a business. In fact, most business owners I know have — they point to having that network as that social network, that strong network as really a key to their success.”
Nearly seven percent of small businesses in the United States are owned by veterans, according to a Small Business Association report from December 2018.
The VBOC program is only accessible to military veterans and provides a network to people like Ed Ballanco, the owner of Better Body Fitness in Helena.
Ballanco, like Frost noted, isn't from Montana.
“I'm from nowhere," said Ballanco with a chuckle next to a squat rack at his business. "My dad was Air Force, so I moved about 11 times with him. Mostly in Germany though, I lived more in Germany than any other place.”
Ballanco served in the Army for over two decades and went on three separate one-year tours to Iraq. In 2003, Ballanco got his first taste of the Treasure State in 2003 on a ski trip with his brother and said almost instantly he was hooked and knew Montana was where he wanted to plant his roots, and owning a business was a part of that dream.
“I knew for a long time that I was going to just do this last tour and leave. So, I had been planning to buy a business, I was very interested in that and it's amazing the number of resources that the Army gives you — the military gives you to help you transition," said Ballanco.
Ballanco said on his last tour in Korea, he reached out to Frost to begin working on his plan of owning a business.
"So [Frost] told me, 'Look, you've been moving around for the last 25 years, you haven't been able to be in one place and build any type of network. So I will be your network. So if you need a banker, you need a real estate agent. You need an accountant, I will help you get set up with those people,'" said Ballanco.
This dream didn't come to fruition without its bumps in the road, which were made easier to navigate due in part to the VBOC.
"We were all on track to close a month ago, five weeks ago, and the bank I was using ... just added a couple of stipulations at the end that they never told us about and so the deal went off. I left them as a bank. So I went back Dustin at the VBOC office and said, 'Hey, I'm having terrible difficulties with this bank. They're abandoning me, they're changing the — they basically moved the goalposts as we were about to score,' and so he introduced me to Yellowstone Bank and he had some contacts over there who could get the deal done quickly."
Now, just two months removed from the military, Ballanco is now a part of the nearly seven percent of veteran-owned small businesses, with plans to open another location for fitness equipment sales in the near future.
While Ballanco is one of the people that the Big Sky VBOC has helped, the program isn't exactly new. Nate Kouhana is the founder and owner of Anthem Snacks in the Gallatin Valley and also used the program as a springboard to accelerate his business.
"It really started with showing my business plan, and really, coming up and just saying, 'Hey, punch holes in it, do whatever,' said Kouhana when asked about his experience with the program.
Kouhana served in the Army from 2003 to 2009, before a combat injury forced him to retire.
"When you're in, you're kind of just trying to get to the 10-year mark," recounted Kouhana. "For me, it was a little bit different, because on my last deployment, I actually got wounded, and so the unit I was in, I was in third Special Forces Group. So when we got back, I really had to assess just where I was."
After leaving the military, Kouhana began his entrepreneurial streak in the tech industry before earning his business degree at the University of Chicago and moving to Montana shortly thereafter.
With Kouhana's prior experience in the business sector before starting Anthem Snacks, he feels like there was a high likelihood of success, but having the VBOC program was an added bonus.
"I put in a lot of hard work. So, I think, I think I would have knocked down a lot of these doors, that the difference is the timing, right? That, you know, to — it's— to have somebody speak well, on your behalf, make an introduction is always much easier, right? And so to have Dustin as kind of that go-between, and then really putting his name and the program's name, when he makes an introduction goes a long way," said Kouhana.
Kouhana did note there was a key introduction that was made during the pandemic that has helped his business grow substantially.
"Dustin really worked on making a few introductions for me. He introduced me to the folks at Town Pump, which was, which was key. I mean, you know, we wouldn't be where we are today without, without that introduction," said Kouhana.
Though Frost and the VBOC play a role in helping veteran-owned businesses start and succeed, he believes what they do is just a small part of their success.
"What we're doing is really being that, that spark at the beginning of their business ownership. Because I know, it is absolutely the truth that their success, after I make that little spark introduction, their success is due to, due to the traits that they already have in them. Vets make awesome entrepreneurs," said Frost. "I love being a part of this initial introduction, but these are impressive people. They have done impressive things in the military and they want to continue to serve, right? It's not like when you leave the military, your service doesn't end. You want to serve, you want to care for your community, that doesn't end. And so to be able to be a part of giving them a chance to continue to have success in their lives, I think that's ultimately the story that we're talking about here."