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Patriot Express loans help vet entrepreneurs

POSTED: January 7, 2011 10:49 a.m.
Photo by Denise Etheridge/

Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Mike Dushner, owner of Sarge’s Lawn Services, gets ready to trim lawns at a Hinesville condominium complex.

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Army veteran Mike Dushner didn’t have the opportunity to apply for a Patriot Express loan when he retired from the service and started his own business, Sarge’s Lawn Services, in 1994. Dushner said having that type of assistance from the Small Business Administration would have made those first years as his own boss a bit easier. Despite the challenges he faced, Dushner’s hard work paid off.
“I started small,” Dushner said. “I started with a little push mower in the back of a Chevy Astro van. Then I gradually went to the next level.”
Dushner said his first mower cost $200. He now owns $150,000 worth of equipment. Today, Dushner’s clientele is 40 percent commercial and 60 percent residential. His business was even profiled a few years ago in Turf Magazine, a far cry from his one-man operation days.
Dushner said in the beginning he was his own work crew, with part-time help from his wife, Song, who was also busy raising their four children. Dushner now employs five part-time workers “in the growing season” from mid-February to mid-November, and three workers in the winter. Song also became a driving force in his lawn care business once the children were grown, Dushner said with pride.
“She’s a dynamo,” he said.
Dushner had contemplated applying for a loan from the government years ago to help get his business up and running, but was skeptical, he said. So he used his own savings. Dushner didn’t apply for a loan until his customer base had grown and he needed “better, faster” equipment.
“I took a small loan, around $2,000, from The Heritage Bank,” he said.
Veterans thinking of starting businesses today have more choices and resources to assist them.
“Launched in late June 2007, Patriot Express has provided more than $560 million in loan guarantees to nearly 7,000 veterans to start or expand their small businesses,” SBA spokesperson David Byrne said. “The loan offers a streamlined application process along with an enhanced guaranty and interest rate on loans to small businesses owned by veterans, reservists and their spouses.”
“America’s veterans have the leadership skills and experience to become successful entrepreneurs and small business owners,” said SBA Administrator Karen Mills.  “The impact of this program over the last three-and-a-half years has meant thousands of veterans and their families have had the resources to pursue their dreams as entrepreneurs, and at the same time, create jobs and drive economic growth at a critical time for our country.  Renewing it means we can continue to fulfill our sacred commitment to the men and women who serve our country by giving them every opportunity for success.”
SBA also offers counseling assistance and procurement support each year to more than 200,000 veterans, service-disabled veterans, reservists and members of the National Guard and their spouses, Byrne said.
However, before a veteran starts seeking loans to start a business, SBA counselors suggest veterans be sure what type of business is best for them.
“I’ve had many veterans call me and ask what I think. But if you don’t know what you want to do, you’re not ready yet,” SBA Veterans Officer Jorge Valentin-Stone said.
Valentin-Stone said veterans should ask questions and be prepared before they begin.
“You do something you know, and do something you like,” he said.
Dushner agreed. He said he began providing lawn maintenance part-time, while he was still on active duty.
“Experience really did play a part in whether I pursued this as a second career,” he said. “And I like working outdoors.”
The SBA, with its partner entities such as Small Business Development Centers and SCORE offices, can provide technical assistance to veteran entrepreneurs, Valentin-Stone said.
“The one-on-one counseling is free,” he said. “They’ll help the (veteran) polish a rough draft business plan.”
Veterans also can go back for assistance and guidance when they are ready to grow their business, Valentin-Stone said.
“That’s why we’re here,” he said.
Veterans understand discipline and sacrifice, which translates well to business ownership, Valentin-Stone said.
“Having gone through the military experience, they’re better adapted to making the necessary sacrifices that starting a business involves.”
“The military was an education in itself,” Dushner said. “I enjoyed it. There were some hard times, but you’ve got to take the ups with the downs.”
Dushner said he worked seven days a week “for a long time” when he started his lawn care business.
“Just a couple of years ago we began to free up the weekend,” he said.
Dushner
also offered his recipe for success, “Treat people fairly and do quality work.”
For more information on the Patriot Express Loan Pilot Program visit www.sba.gov/vets.

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