Monday, 30 November 2020

A leg up for fellow veterans

Michael Hansen was little more than an entry-level salesman when he started pushing his employer to do more for veterans.

He had been a decorated Marine in the Iraq War before embarking on a rocky, tumultuous transition into the business world at the height of the recession. After failing to find a national security job and completing a few semesters of graduate school, he found himself in Greenbelt, Md., at the bottom of a corporate hierarchy in which every decision had to be tied to profitability.

His job at Power Home Remodeling, a national home-improvement firm that made $520 million last year, was to meet customers at their homes and sell them remodeling services. He noticed that Power had only a few veterans among its sales force — but the ones it did have posted outstanding numbers. He was certain that the company would benefit greatly if it employed more veterans.

So he pitched his managers on a novel idea: set up an independent department within Power responsible for helping veterans build careers after the military, with its own budget dedicated to integrating them into the company’s core business operations.

Hansen says his goal was to help fellow veterans “redefine the sense of purpose that we had in the military” by creating communities for them in the civilian world.

Michael Hansen, left, approached Power Home Remodeling co-chief executive Asher Raphael to propose a department to help military veterans build careers after the military. Raphael said yes and put Hansen in charge. (Jared Soares/For The Washington Post)

“When you get out of the military, you may be competent and capable, but it’s the application of your skill sets that can determine how effective you can be,” Hansen says. “Transitioning that to the corporate sector is doable, but it depends on how fast you can build up your support network.”

After at first getting little traction, he went directly to the top, approaching chief executive Asher Raphael at a company dinner. Hansen phrased it not as a charitable undertaking but as a business deal that would boost sales companywide. If Power did more to support veterans, he contended, they would return the favor by bringing in more business.

To back up his theory, Hansen showed Raphael data that he’d analyzed demonstrating that the average veteran at Power sold more and stayed longer at the company than their civilian colleagues. And the remodeling jobs they oversaw tended to be “cleaner,” with fewer customer complaints.

“We found that the military vets we did have were not just successful, but they were disproportionately successful,” he says.

Raphael approved Hansen’s idea to establish the Power Home Remodeling Department of Military Affairs and put him in charge of it. Today, the company allocates between $2.25 million and $2.5 million annually for staffing and support.

Hansen leads colleagues in a workout on the Mall on May 10. (Jared Soares/for The Washington Post)

Such investments in workers’ ideas and success are part of why employees give Power high marks. Citing the support they get from management to grow and succeed in their careers, employees in The Washington Post’s Top Workplaces survey ranked Power No. 3 among midsize firms.

Skilled or well-connected veterans have long had a unique place in the Washington area’s business community, where some of the biggest employers are government contractors serving U.S. defense and intelligence agencies.

A few such companies made the 2018 Top Workplaces listing: Columbia, Md.-based government contractor Intelli­Genesis, for example, holds employment workshops for people transitioning out of the military. Procentrix, a Herndon, Va.-based software company, solicits résumés through the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity that serves veterans.

But Power Home Remodeling is different in that it has no government or defense ties. Thus, it’s often a challenge for Hansen to convince managers — many of whom have no connection to the military — that people like him are a worthy investment.

“We want to highlight that vets are a success,” Hansen says. “They vote more. They serve communities more. They build successful businesses.”

Hansen’s transition to civilian life didn’t go as smoothly as he had hoped.

He had joined the Marine Corps in the early years of the U.S. war in Iraq, also known as Operation Iraqi Freedom. His service over the course of four deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan earned him a promotion to the rank of sergeant as well as a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal.

He left the service for the first time at age 22 and immediately landed a high-paying job at an insurance company. Then when the recession struck, his company went under, and he was laid off without a paycheck. His family lost their house and his marriage fell apart.

Hansen leads a workout with colleagues at the Lincoln Memorial. (Jared Soares/For The Washington Post)

Each veteran hired by Power is assigned a mentor. (Jared Soares/For The Washington Post)
Hansen leads a workout with Power Home Remodeling colleagues at the Lincoln Memorial. Each veteran hired by Power is assigned a mentor.

He ended up returning for another tour of duty before making his way to Washington, where he had hoped to leverage his military background for a career in government or defense contracting. He spent three years there, sleeping on a friend’s couch, working as a bartender and pursuing a master’s degree in the evenings.

Then another friend from the military helped him get a sales job at Power, and he was surprised to find that the work suited him. It tapped into his interpersonal “soft skills” that he had honed working in military intelligence.

“I had developed a career that essentially was successful in the military because I got good at navigating people,” Hansen says, “and that was a skill that I was able to transition into the commercial sector.”

Hansen attends the Travis Manion Foundation leadership conference in Arlington last month. The charity focuses on veterans issues. (Jared Soares/for The Washington Post)

From there he swiftly moved up the ranks, netting two promotions in his first year there. After 18 months he became a “million-dollar rep,” joining an elite group whose members had single-handedly closed $1 million in home-improvement sales in a single fiscal year.

But he never lost sight of his ties to the military, and he kept lobbying his managers to set up a military affairs department.

Today, from his perch in the firm’s corporate headquarters in Chester, Pa., Hansen finds himself in a position to influence a serious hiring machine with national reach: Power employs close to 2,300 people in the United States, including about 270 in the Washington area.

At Hansen’s suggestion, Power offers each veteran a $3,000 bonus after 90 days on the job. Veterans’ spouses can get bonuses, too, something that is intended to recognize the burden they carry when deployed family members’ lives are at risk overseas.

The company hired regional managers with military backgrounds to find promising recruits, and it set up an array of in-company programs designed to form a support network.

A veterans group in Atlanta recently took a paintball outing paid for by the company, for example. Another regional group embarked on a hiking trip to Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania. Hansen often travels to the  company’s regional offices to lead exercise classes. Every military veteran who joins the company is assigned a mentor, another veteran at the company who can help them adapt to civilian life and teach them the tricks of excelling at the company.

Fourteen percent of new hires at Power this year have been veterans.

With Hansen’s help, Power boosted its veteran workforce to 8 percent this year from 2 percent in 2016, or to 225 from 35 employees. And it reports that so far about 14 percent of new hires in 2018 have been veterans, suggesting the number is poised to climb even higher.

Newer hires say the support means a lot.

Josh Barkley, a Marine Corps veteran who joined the company last year after transitioning out of the military in 2014, says that for years he had bounced around his home state of Indiana, unable to find a suitable full-time job.

Like Hansen, Barkley had a family he needed to support. So when a friend from the Marines referred him to a job at Power, he jumped at the chance.

“For the life of me I could not find a job. But I knew someone at Power and I drove from Indiana to Maryland specifically for the interview,” Barkley says.

Since then, Barkley has become a force in the Greenbelt office. He attends job fairs on behalf of the company and helps manage relationships with military bases in the area alongside his day job as a remodeling consultant team leader.

The $3,000 veteran’s bonus came in handy when his family was adjusting to their new home in Maryland.

“For me, this was a make or break time in my life,” he says.

Hansen, for his part, refers to Power Home Remodeling as a “leadership development company.”

He says he hopes other companies will follow suit.

“When you get out of the military, you may be competent and capable, but it‘s the application of your skill sets that can determine how effective you can be,” Hansen says. “Transitioning that to the corporate sector is doable, but it depends on how fast you can build up your support network.”

Related stories:

Letters From War: Four brothers, hundreds of letters, one war

As a Navy SEAL receives the Medal of Honor, frustrations remain about a related case

Congress sends massive veterans bill to Trump, opening door to more private health care


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