Ray Gagnon is a lifelong entrepreneur. The retired Marine Corps master gunnery sergeant remembers his earliest venture selling night crawlers to fishermen on their way to a lake near his parent’s home when he was 6 years old.
And that entrepreneurial spirit never left him. Even while on active duty, Gagnon and his wife ran businesses on the side to earn extra money, so there was little question over what he would do when he reentered civilian life.
When Gagnon retired in 2008 after 25 years of military service, he founded a thriving training and consulting business. “We made more money than we ever made in our lives and life was good,” Gagnon says.
But one night in 2015, Gagnon’s wife noticed something about her husband wasn’t quite right. “She looked at me and said ‘What’s wrong? The business is good, the kids are grown and things are going really well, but you’re still not happy?’”
Despite its success, Gagnon’s consulting business was very specialized. Unless someone had the knowledge and skills he had, he couldn’t share it with anyone else. “And I always wanted to include fellow veterans and my family,” he says.
That led to an idea: Why not run a business that allowed him to do just that? “The whole time I served, I came across a lot of great men and women. I always said to myself, ‘If I could build a business with these people, you just couldn’t fail.’”
Then one morning, Gagnon saw a news segment featuring Jerry Flanagan, the co-founder of a company called JDog Junk Removal & Hauling, which focuses on hiring military veterans and their family members. Through its franchise model, JDog gives veterans the chance to own and run their own business.
“He was talking about his mission and his goals and I said ‘Hmm, that sounds like something I want to do.’ So that’s what I did,” Gagnon recalls.
Cultivating the Veteran ‘Brand’
After 100 consecutive months of job growth and unemployment rates at decade-lows, U.S. businesses are struggling to fill open positions. While some companies are becoming less selective about who they hire, others are looking not just for labor, but better labor. Veterans— with their commitment to service, value systems and mission-minded work ethic—fit the bill, and many industries want them.
Tech companies are beginning to offer job training and other resources to help former servicemen and -women land jobs. In the case of Google, the company introduced new job search tools that help veterans find a civilian career comparable to their military one.
Large manufacturers like Huntington Ingalls Industries, the largest military shipbuilding company in the United States, have also pledged to hire more military veterans and their family members.
For businesses like JDog, where employees regularly interact with clients, a workforce that already enjoys a high level of trust is a valuable asset. “When I think about veterans, I think about someone who is clean-cut, respectful, hardworking and goal-oriented—all the things that we admire about military veterans,” says Chris Close, chief financial officer for Military Veteran Partners, an investor and adviser focused on creating opportunities for former service-members.
While improving job prospects for veterans is important, Close underscores the unique qualities they bring to a company. “We don’t want people saying ‘well, we’re just doing this as a charity.’ We want them to say they’re doing it because we believe we’re going to get better service, we think they’ll do a better job than the average employee,” he says.
Growth Through Education
By April 2016, Gagnon had opened his first JDog franchise near Schenectady, New York.
Initially, the company had just one truck and a trailer, and it served one territory, Gagnon says. His wife managed the business from the living room of their home and the operations were run out of his son’s backyard and garage.
Customers, such as residential and commercial property owners, would call up Gagnon’s JDog franchise to remove unwanted items from homes, offices and stores. When possible, some of the disposed of items would be donated to charitable organizations to prevent unnecessary landfill waste.
Over time, Gagnon hired more workers and eventually he eyed expansion. In the summer of 2017, Gagnon decided to expand by opening up franchise locations across the northeastern United States. But that came with a challenge: his plan required money.
Gagnon tried financing through loans, with little luck. He used money from his other businesses, but even that wasn’t enough.
That’s when Flanagan introduced Gagnon to Steve Cloetingh, an experienced entrepreneur with an idea for a company that would help develop and grow veteran-owned and -operated businesses. Gagnon and Cloetingh discovered they shared the same vision of helping veterans through business.
In January 2018, Cloetingh launched Military Veteran Partners and one of its first investments was in Gagnon’s JDog franchise. Currently, JDog is the firm’s only portfolio company.
MVP’s investment provided the capital Gagnon needed. The expansion he envisioned would have taken 10 to 15 years or more; now it could be done in three to five.
But that growth posed another problem. Gagnon had never run a business as large as his was about to be. Luckily, MVP came with a unique investment philosophy. The firm doesn’t just provide capital, but education as well.
Military veterans have unique qualifications and skills that help them in business, but sometimes their knowledge has gaps, says Close. “And that’s what we help them with, trying to just understand some of the more practical things about building and running a business.”
MVP provides education in accounting and finance, marketing, IT and other areas to help JDog franchises grow.
With guidance from MVP, Gagnon learned what he needed to run his company, and he continues to reach out when issues arise. “I don’t refer to MVP as investors—they’re our partners, our mentors and our friends,” he says.
All that mentoring has paid off. Gagnon’s franchise started with one territory in upstate New York and today has grown to 15 territories that cover Boston, Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia, and more are on the way.
Those future franchises will allow Gagnon, now president of JDog Empire—the name of his group of franchise businesses—to hire hundreds of fellow veterans.
“It’s an exciting place to be,” Gagnon says. “I get to go to work with my Marines, other veterans and I get to work with my family. We get to serve the community, we get to serve our customers. My entire business career from age six to now has led me, I believe, to this business.”
Benjamin Glick is ACG Global’s marketing and communications associate.