Vietnam soldier paves way for vets in business

Norfolk District Public Affairs
Published March 9, 2011
Jack Beecher helps small businesses navigate the federal marketplace as they seek opportunities.

Jack Beecher helps small businesses navigate the federal marketplace as they seek opportunities.

Jack Beecher is a man of his word.

His office might indicate something like that: neatly arranged awards and shiny plaques that line his office walls praise his work with small businesses in tall, etched letters. Another decoration for his efforts, a ceremonial sword, guards the front of his desk. He keeps three smooth black stones that say "respect," "trust" and "integrity" on a table in his office – they're a few basic tenets of how Beecher does business. The Web will tell you his expert testimony was shared with Congress and he's spoken at or attended more small business conferences than a contractor could throw a brick at.

As the chief of the Small Business Program Office, is he the best at what he does? Maybe. Kaney O'Neill thinks so.

O'Neill was a Navy airman apprentice when she fell and became a quadriplegic more than a decade ago. As a service-disabled veteran, she owns a general contracting company in Washington, and she met Norfolk District's Beecher at a small business conference. Since then, Beecher has become an advocate for her, like he is for all service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses.

"When you're in a business like mine, it's difficult," O'Neill said. "Jack has been somebody who actively supports my business, and done everything in his power to help make me and my business successful."

Beecher is the magic man of opportunity for small businesses. At Norfolk District, his small business section connects work opportunities, mostly contracting, with small women-owned businesses, small disadvantaged businesses, and small businesses in historically underutilized zones, among others. But Beecher is making waves in his efforts to help service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses.

From beaches to business

Fresh out of the jungles of Pleiku, Vietnam, Beecher joined Norfolk District in 1970 as a surveying aid and four years later he became a general clerk in the contracting division, and he's since worked his way through the ranks.

Beecher said he's come a long way.

A beach-bum at heart, a young Beecher was content to surf the crisp Atlantic waves when he wasn't stocking shelves, sacking groceries or crashing at his parents' Portsmouth home. He was doing just that when an official-looking letter, signed by the president, found its way to Beecher in 1968: "You are hereby ordered to report for and submit to induction into the Armed Forces of the United States …"

"To be honest with you, at the time, I didn't care to be in the Army," Beecher said.

But Beecher now uses the connection he feels from his two years in the Army to help service-disabled veterans: Beecher is also an SDV, something he found out after his prostate cancer was linked to his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

"As a service disabled veteran, I have a personal perspective on trying to help those companies," he said. "Not a day goes by that I'm not dealing with a SDV."

Small business, big success

Beecher became the District's small business chief in 1998 and the program manager for the SDVOSB category about four years ago. As program manager, he said he had a valuable tool at his fingertips - an executive order directing federal agencies to award 3 percent of their contract budget to SDVOSB.

"The order was a really great incubator for vets who were interested in starting small businesses and working with the federal government," said David Spanka, president of the Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business Council. However, Spanka said this order was weakened by its wording.

"The order simply established an agency goal," Spanka said. "A lot of government agencies don't meet that goal, but pat themselves on the back when the achieve 1 percent."

Spanka said agencies like the Veteran's Administration and Norfolk District have done well in meeting or exceeding the 3 percent mark. The District lands that recognition in part to the small business section's efforts: in Beecher's first year as program manager, the Corps increased its SDV awards from $217 million to $543 million as the small business section put SDVOSB in front of contract officers and decision makers at Norfolk District. Beecher says the successes are a reflection of Corps employees and leadership – and each played a role in ensuring that every fiscal year since 2008, Norfolk District has exceeded the 3 percent goal. In fiscal year 2010, 15 percent of the contracting budget went to SDVOSBs.

While some SDVOSBs come to Beecher, others are found by Beecher. He looks for SDVOSB construction companies, and helps them navigate the federal marketplace as they seek opportunities to do business with Uncle Sam. He's found dozens of companies at conferences, in meetings, through databases and watched the businesses ride their success to become something larger.

"I've actually seen some small businesses go from having companies that do $100,000 a year to well above $4 or $5 million a year," he said. The Corps awarded more than $2.2 billion dollars in contracts to SDVOSB over the last three years.

John Karafa's construction business was one such company. The company's maiden project was the Fort Lee dining facility in 2008. It was also the seed project for the fledgling company, Leebcor.

"We had a lot to lose or a lot to gain," Karafa said. "They say you're only as good as your last project and we wanted to put our best foot forward – and this wasn't an easy building."

The dining facility, which was a $6.8 million contract award, earned a LEED Gold rating in 2010 based on the company's work. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED is a certification program and the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings.

"That project enabled us to launch a credible, quality-focused business," Karafa said. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the [small business] program. I had this opportunity because of Jack."

Norfolk District has since awarded Karafa's company with a handful of multi-million dollar projects under the SDV set-aside.

The small business section also helped cast Jim Hart's construction business, Arriba Corporation, as another company that handles million-dollar contracts. Arriba started in 1998 with two employees and one contract. But that was before Jack Beecher and a contract for a job at Fort Eustis.

"Jack provided a lot of support," Hart said. "He's incredibly committed to small businesses."

Hart credits Beecher with strengthening SDVOSBs by advocating for them and getting companies in front of decision-makers.

"His voice was pretty loud," Hart said. "He rallied a lot of people to say, 'look, this makes sense.'"

In the meantime, Beecher continues to support SDVOSB, finding new businesses and keeping in touch with companies, like O'Neill's, that he's helped along the way.

"He's never stopped helping me," O'Neill said. "It says a lot about what kind of man he is and about his work effort – it's a beautiful thing."