Continuing to serve

June 21, 2015 -  By

Government contracts fuel former Marine’s New York landscape and snow removal business.

From left: SBA Acting Associate Administrator for the Office of Veterans Business Development Barbara Carson,  Veteran Lawn & Landscape owner Chris Dambach and SBA Syracuse District Director Bernard Paprocki.

From left: SBA Acting Associate Administrator for the Office of Veterans Business Development Barbara Carson, Veteran Lawn & Landscape owner Chris Dambach and SBA Syracuse District Director Bernard Paprocki.

In 2010, Chris Dambach and his fellow Marines were sitting on the back of a vehicle, on the border of Syria and Iraq, talking about where life after the military would take them. Some of the guys mentioned they would go to college, while others talked about joining family businesses. But there, surrounded by desert, Dambach decided he would use the skills he learned previously working in the green industry and start his own landscape company when he returned home.

Knowing that Dambach was always full of ideas, his comrades challenged him to follow through with the plan. It turned out to be a challenge he was willing to take.

Later that year, after sustaining an injury, Dambach returned home to Syracuse, N.Y., and Veteran Lawn & Landscape was born.

“More than anything, I wanted to be my own boss,” Dambach says. “I didn’t want to have to answer to anyone—
except for my wife—when I got back.”

Veteran Lawn & Landscape is now a $1 million company—on track to reach $1.5 million in 2015—with 17 employees and 23 subcontractors. Dambach’s hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed, earning him several awards, including the SBA Syracuse District’s Veteran-Owned Business Achievement Award in 2015.

Keeping with its roots, 85 percent of the company’s clients are government agencies, such as national cemeteries, military bases and Veterans Affairs hospitals, with commercial customers making up the other 15 percent. Lawn maintenance and snow removal comprise nearly 80 percent of the company’s service offerings, but Dambach also provides waste management, window washing and janitorial services to his biggest clients. He finds and bids on most of his jobs through government websites, such as neco.navy.mil, which lists opportunities through the Navy. The amount of each contract ranges from $5,000 to $3.5 million, depending on the size of the job and what’s involved.

“I served in the military, so getting to work on bases and in national cemeteries is very rewarding,” he says. “In a way, I still feel like I’m serving, just without the uniform.”

While some might think that working so closely with the government would be a red-tape nightmare, Dambach says that overall he’s had great luck. Along with finding the work so rewarding, he says it’s “guaranteed money” as long as the job gets done. The contracts are typically five years, and the first year is guaranteed. After that, the contracts are evaluated on an annual basis, but “as long as you don’t run anyone over with your lawn mower,” Dambach says, the incumbent typically gets to fulfill all five years.

Working with the feds

Veteran-Lawn-and-Landscape-1Despite the perks, government contracts also have drawbacks. They’re paperwork-intensive, and each agency has its own invoicing systems, which are intricate and can be complicated to navigate. Dambach also has to provide any capital upfront, and he plans to start bidding on bigger projects that will require a substantial investment in materials, such as realigning gravestones and re-sodding a national cemetery to give it the “pristine look that the vets deserve.” Dambach also had a particularly tough time when the government shut down for 18 days in late 2013. With government agencies comprising more than 90 percent of his clientele at that time, he had to lay off about 14 crew members for six to seven weeks at a loss of $25,000 in profit for that year.

“That was hard to tell your employees,” Dambach says. “And when they asked when they could come back to work, I didn’t know. It was an open-ended question. These guys have families and mortgages. It was really tough.”

The government shutdown made Dambach realize he needed to diversify to survive. He started going after more commercial clients, and in 2014 he also started a business entirely separate from Veteran Lawn & Landscape: a food truck called Bacon Bandits specializing in all things bacon. He had the truck at festivals nearly every weekend last year, but he’s currently in the process of selling it to focus on bottling and selling one of Bacon Bandits’ popular homemade burger toppings, Bacon Gold.
“With a food truck, people have to eat no matter what,” he says. “The goal was to offset any future government shutdowns so I could survive.”

To balance his two businesses, Dambach relies on the leadership of his managers and supervisors, and the skills he gained during his six years in the Marine Corps. His experience leading and working in small groups, such as the four-man Marine Corps fireteam, has been invaluable in managing his crews. Through the military, Dambach also learned to treat his guys the way he would want to be treated and not to ask people to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

Another skill is punctuality: “Don’t roll in five minutes late; be there 10 minutes early,” Dambach says.  The importance of looking your best and being prepared at all times “with your shoelaces tied, a pen and your business cards,” and the ability to work long hours until the job is done are yet other military-inspired traits Dambach has acquired.

“There are so many skills I learned, it’s hard to narrow it down to a few,” he says. “Everything I learned in the Marines I have carried over to the civilian sector.”

Schappacher is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.

 

Photos: U.S. Small Business Administration Syracuse District Office; Veteran Lawn & Landscape

About the Author:

Emily Schappacher is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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