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VOL. 37 | NO. 21 | Friday, May 24, 2013

Ex-Navy Seals connect veterans to business

By Joe Morris | Correspondent

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Judson Kauffman

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Despite having an array of skills that would be valuable to any employer, many veterans find the civilian job market a tough place to gain traction.

And since most employment agencies aren’t familiar with service qualifications, especially with highly trained military members, they often don’t get much help from that corner.

That’s why former Navy SEALs Judson Kauffman and Joe Wolfel believe that Brentwood-based ExBellum, the company they’ve launched to connect private-sector employers with former special operations personnel, will quickly take off.

“After I left the Navy, I realized that there was a capability gap in the private sector with respect to leadership, operations, and esprit de corps — all things that I had become accustomed to while serving,” Kauffman says. “At the same time, the men I had worked with who were separating from the service were experiencing difficulty finding relevant work in private industry. This was terribly frustrating because these are some of the smartest and most capable people in the country, yet employers didn’t seem to understand that fact.”

He and Wolfel believe their company can serve as a conduit for both sides, allowing employers to learn about the skill sets former military personnel have to offer, while the veterans are able to get a closer view at what companies need to find the right fit.

“There are a lot of talented people out there, but employers have to sift through a lot of applicants to find them,” Kauffman says. “With us, the sifting has been done; so you know that who you’re getting is going to be solid.”

It would be easy to see ExBellum as a small, niche operator, but the numbers tell a different story. According to Kauffman, around 25,000 special operations personnel will leave the military in the next decade, no small amount of uniquely qualified people who’ll be looking for work that dovetails with what they bring to the table.

“We’re unique in that we’re the only firm that’s connecting employers with special-operations veterans,” Kauffman says. “There may be various programs and websites that aim to address the issue of veteran unemployment, but to our knowledge, no one is doing what we’re doing.”

There’s also a lot of educating to be done for both sides. Many former special operators tend to network in their military circles, and so do not have a lot of civilian business contacts. At the same time, businesses are only aware of these veterans’ abilities with weaponry, overlooking their extensive training and experience in leadership, strategic planning, decision making, team building and critical thinking, Kauffman says, adding that ExBellum is being very selective about its target markets.

“There are dozens of well-intentioned employers out there who have set aside jobs for veterans; we don’t want to work with those firms,” he explains. “We want to work with a firm that needs and wants very talented people who can add value to the company.”

For local employers, ExBellum brings a focus that’s welcome in a job market that’s crowded with applicants and recruiting services.

“From my initial experience with Judson, I knew we were going to have a different experience,” says Matt Gelfand, managing partner with Lightbulb Innovation Group, a retail product-development firm working in several industries, including health care, sports and fashion.

“I have used staffing companies before, and so I was curious to see what his approach was. He came in and wanted to know not just about the raw materials required for the job, the description and qualifications, but also he wanted to learn about our business — what we sell, how we have developed since our founding, what’s important to us, what we’re working on now. That was different than my prior experience, which was providing some information and working out a fee for a successful candidate.”

The ExBellum team also met with many of Lightbulb’s employees, particularly those who would be working with the new employee. In this case, the hire was for an operations position, so Kauffman drilled down into exactly what he or she would be doing, and the dynamics of the existing team.

“It was a lot more detailed than any other staffing firm I’ve worked with,” Gelfand says. “But by doing that, he can go out and not just grab 30 people but narrow the field and send us a list of two or three people to talk to. He did that, plus he provided the pros and cons of each of those candidates with regard to their skill sets and personalities for this position.”

Since launching in January, ExBellum has drawn a lot of interest from other businesses and the military community, and has been working to get its vetting processes into place while also educating both job applicants and companies seeking personnel. Over the next few months the company looks to bring in additional funding, as well as additional staff to continue its growth.

And as for Lightbulb, the company is currently moving its offices, but will be making a hire within the month, and the ExBellum candidates top its list.

“They were just dramatically different,” Gelfand says. “Even on the phone their confidence level was higher, and their team-focused, problem solving approach was evident. They asked a lot of questions, and I could tell that they had both the life experience and the leadership qualities that were far beyond people who had just gone to business school, or had a lot of cumulative work experience. They had the complete, total experience that we are looking for.”

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