Small Business

Ex-Navy fighter pilot built $15 million seaplane business, thanks to military skills

Rob Ceravolo and his dog

Tropic Ocean Airways

As I prepared to leave the Navy after years of active duty as a fighter pilot, most of my friends were becoming airline pilots, but that life wasn’t for me. There was only one thing I wanted to do: start a business.

Using the money I’d earned in the service and raised by selling my house, car, boat, motorcycle and kayak, I bought a 1976 Cessna 206 four-passenger airplane to get started on building my own airline in 2009. I worked on it nights and weekends as I served my last two years of active duty, riding a bicycle instead of driving a car to save money.

It took two years to get my license to operate. Meanwhile, I had to cover expenses like insurance and the note on the plane, without any revenue coming in. When I finally got the license to operate, the business was about two weeks away from running out of cash.

Fortunately, the business took off — in large part because of my military experience. Today, Tropic Ocean Airways has become one of the largest amphibious airlines in the world, meaning we fly seaplanes that take off on land and touch down on the water. Last year we flew 45,000 people in markets from New York to the Philippines, bringing in about $15 million in revenue, with 100 employees.

Around this time of year, I often notice articles calling for more job training for military veterans. Employers don’t always recognize what veterans have to contribute, and veterans often need to get other credentials to prove they’re ready for the nine to five.

Transferring military skills to business

Job training is great, but let’s not forget about another avenue of employment that is ideal for many veterans: entrepreneurship. The conventional wisdom is that our military training just prepares us to follow orders. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I discovered, the military is a great place to learn how to lead and unite people around a common mission. That’s why we’re seeing the success of veteran-run businesses like Black Rifle Coffee, which has built a cult following on YouTube.

What prepared me to succeed when I started my business was my experience flying over Iraq with my wingman. The Navy trained us to operate in a fast-moving environment where we often had to think through problems without any time to ask for direction. Although we learned to follow standard operating procedure to solve whatever challenges arose, often we had to take calculated risks. If we made the wrong call, we had to be willing to change direction rapidly.

Gulf of Aden flight deck

Tropic Ocean Airways

It was the ideal training ground to develop autonomy and make high-stakes decisions in my business like launching a relief program in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian, where our pilots had to operate in a devastated environment.

I also learned risk management and contingency planning. When you are flying through enemy territory as a solo pilot, you don’t leave much to chance. Your survival depends on asking questions like “What happens if my plans fail?”

That is a skill that has been helpful in my business. Entrepreneurs fail a lot, but failure isn’t permanent if you have a plan B, C, D and E. Currently, for instance, we’re working on opening four locations in the Caribbean. Our plan is for all of them to succeed, but if any one doesn’t work out, we’ll still have the others to fall back on.

The way I see it, if you fail, you’re not a failure; if you succeed, you’re not a success. You’re an entrepreneur, which means that no matter what happened today, tomorrow is a new day, and you have to get up and keep grinding. It’s almost the same mindset as in the military.

The military also teaches you to accept feedback in a constructive way. Many times after a mission I’d be asked to participate in a debriefing with my supervisor. He expected me to be honest if one of his plans failed and never took it personally. We’d simply regroup if our strategy didn’t work. I’ve done that many times in my company, where we tailor our standardized services to each customer’s needs, in response to their feedback. Many of our customers come to us after working with competitors who were not willing to be as flexible.

The road to financial stability

There is another reason many veterans are well positioned to succeed as entrepreneurs: Many, though not all, military veterans have access to a military pension and health benefits. This gives them the financial stability they need to open a business. It’s easier to get started if you know you can keep the lights on at home.

Many returning veterans are ready for their next mission. Starting a business can be a great way for them to get back into the flow of civilian life and make difference. I feel very lucky that my business has given me the opportunity to create 100 jobs.

That said, there’s still one obstacle facing many veterans. At the moment, they don’t know how to get started in running a business because they have not spent a lot of time around entrepreneurs and often haven’t had a chance to learn practical skills like small business finance. That is a fixable problem, one that can be solved by adapting entrepreneurship training programs to those who’ve served our country.

If your community is looking to help veterans find work, make sure it includes programs to get them started in running a business and helps them translate the skills and lessons they learned in the military to their entrepreneurial endeavor. As I’ve found through my own experience, entrepreneurship can be a great fit for those who’ve served our country — even if they never attend a single resume-writing workshop.

—By Rob Ceravolo, CEO of Tropic Ocean Airways, is a member of YPO, the global leadership community of chief executives. Follow him on Twitter at @robceravolo.

About YPO

CNBC and YPO have formed an exclusive editorial partnership consisting of regional “Chief Executive Networks” in the Americas, EMEA and Asia-Pacific. These Chief Executive Networks are made up of a sample of YPO’s global network of 26,000 top executives from 130 countries who are on the front lines of the economy and run companies that collectively generate $9 trillion in annual revenue.

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