News Column

Financing new businesses difficult for veterans

July 7, 2014

By Amy Nolan, The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tenn.

July 07--Ashley Burns and Rob Wynkoop believe their military careers prepared them well to be small business owners, instilling in them leadership skills, self-discipline and the ability to prepare and execute a plan.

Those skills were evident as each earned college degrees during their service -- Burns, an Air Force captain who holds an MBA and Wynkoop, an enlisted Marine who earned a bachelor's degree from Vanderbilt University and is now a first lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Reserve.

They had trouble, however, translating that experience to lenders.

"It was kind of a blow having 13 years experience as an officer, a strong business plan and a partner with loads of restaurant experience," says Wynkoop, 31, owner of Gyrene Burger in Knoxville.

Burns, 33, owner of fitness concept Title Boxing Club, was able to take advantage of the now-closed Patriot Express Loan program from the U.S. Small Business Administration, but he had difficulty finding a willing lender before he ended up with the UT Federal Credit Union.

"Just because it's a federal-backed loan, doesn't mean that all banks are willing to make them," Burns says. "Find a bank that has experience and have done those loans in the past and are willing to work with you."

Both men had built savings through their military careers with the idea of opening their own ventures some day.

Burns and his wife, Amber, now a physician's assistant at Tennessee Orthopaedic Clinic, were living in Spokane, Wash., when they decided to look for a franchise they could locate in a city closer to her family in Pensacola, Fla.

They looked at numerous concepts with the help of a consultant they connected with on the SBA website, before deciding on Title Boxing. Their research included talking to other owners, visiting a club and taking a class.

"I used to fight competitively, so I knew something about boxing and I knew I was in the best shape of my life when I was training," he says.

The couple chose Knoxville because its demographics appeared to support such a business and the quality of life was attractive.

Burns says, knowing that capital would be tight, he searched for almost a year to find the location he wanted at the right price before opening the gym on March 31 at a North Peters Road shopping center.

Despite all his research, Burns wishes he still would have done more -- a third-party fee tied to the franchise was somewhat of a surprise -- although he's enjoying operating his own business.

"I knew I was going into a lot of hours with little pay, but I will say this -- it is the most fun I have ever had," he says. "I will take everything I learned from this business into my next business."

Wynkoop's story is similar, although he never was able to obtain a traditional bank loan. Instead, his business is financed by Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan.

Wynkoop was at Camp Lejeune, N.C., with one startup under his belt -- Scents of Pride, which sells military-themed car fresheners -- when his wife was accepted to medical school at Lincoln Memorial University. He had to decide whether to re-enlist and accept another deployment to Afghanistan to advance his career or switch careers.

"I love my wife deeply, and I decided there has to be another way for us to be in the same place," he recalls.

He answered an advertisement from Monaghan, a former Marine himself, that had been placed in a base publication. The ad said the former restaurant magnate and philanthropist was looking for a Marine officer with whom to partner in a new business venture.

Wynkoop applied.

"Tom and I hit it off from the first time we met," he recalls. "He gave me a copy of his autobiography, and I read it the next week and really connected with him and his life story."

The military-themed Gyrene Burger was created by Monaghan, in large part, to give veterans opportunities in the private sector.

"If I can get a veteran as a delivery driver, teach him to be a store manager, have them become a franchisee in five or six years -- to provide that opportunity to people is my motivation, I can't wait until we finally get to do it."

Wynkoop says Gyrene Burger has fared well on Cumberland Avenue, delivering to employees at Fort Sanders hospitals and downtown offices, as well as to University of Tennessee students.

Both men have connected with other veteran-owned businesses through the Tennessee Veterans Business Association, which has been a source of support and customers.

And they are already looking to give back by supporting TVBA's events.

"Just networking through them has been huge," Burns says.


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Source: Knoxville News-Sentinel (TN)

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