Veterans life insurance

When veterans make entrepreneurship their next mission

California SCUBA Center owner Michael Fitzgerald joined the California Air National Guard to get a taste of the military when he was 18 years old. He also served with the Fresno Police Department and in Iraq as part of a special task force with the California Army National Guard. Photo contributed

published on 22 November 2022 – 13:27
Written by Frank Lopez

According to the US Small Business Administration (SBA), more than 2.4 million US businesses are owned by veterans, employ 5.8 million people and pay $210 billion in annual payrolls.

In fact, there are certain industries – including finance and insurance, transportation and warehousing, mining, quarrying, oil and gas, and construction – where veterans have an outsized interest.

In the Central Valley, the SBA Fresno office and the Valley Small Business Development Center (SBDC) provide resources for veterans who are already entrepreneurs and those who want to start a business.

On November 2, the Clovis Veterans Memorial hosted the Biz Rally Point Summit, inviting community partners to provide information to help veteran business owners grow their business, win government contracts and obtain grants.

A veteran’s journey

Veteran Robert De La Torre owns product wholesaler Visalia Horizon Marketing. He participated for more information on obtaining government contracts and becoming a Certified Veteran-Owned Business.

“Doing business with the government is difficult if you don’t know the process,” De La Torre said.

He is interested in providing fresh fruit to schools and military bases.

De La Torre started working for the company in sales in 2000. He bought the company in 2012.

The business has since grown into Horizon Transportation, a transportation brokerage company, and a factoring company, Horizon Financial, which handles bill processing and collection so that truckers receive faster payment.

Horizon Marketing operates across the country as well as in Canada and Mexico.

Raised by his grandmother in a humble home in Farmersville, De La Torre said they survived on public assistance, but she instilled common sense in him, which later helped him in business .

He had a few odd jobs after graduating from high school, then enlisted in the Navy in 1988 just before he turned 20. He served as a Navy firefighter, tasked with completing engineering watches, operating electrical equipment, and making repairs.

After leaving the Navy in 1992, De La Torre worked at various jobs, finding himself a car salesman at age 25. He sold cars for about 10 years, while also working for UPS.

In 2000, De La Torre was a finance manager in the industry, and through that he met someone in the commodity wholesale business. Soon after, he changed industries.

“I left an established environment, a job and income and took a chance, and entered an industry that could potentially be lucrative,” De La Torre said.

De La Torre said many veterans feel a sense of excitement and expectation when they come out of the military, but there’s no secret to success. Hard work will have to be done.

Veteran helping veterans

Debra Winegarden, licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Achievements Unlimited Inc. in Clovis, provides therapy for individuals, couples and families. She is also an army veteran.

Winegarden said her own military service helped her find common ground with the veterans she cares for.

A Southern California native who has lived in the Central Valley for 34 years, Winegarden grew up camping outdoors, so when she joined the military in 1987 at age 18, she enjoyed the workout.

“My mom was in the military, my brother was in the military before me. I thought, ‘I’m never going to join the military,’ but there I was,” Winegarden said.

She took a semester at Long Beach State but was more interested in surfing and boyfriends and dropped out, she said.

After basic training, she went to San Antonio, Texas for advanced one-on-one dental prosthetics training for over a year.

Winegarden left the military in 1990 and ran a dental practice for the next 25 years. During this time, she returned to college for her bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Fresno State, her master’s degree at the California School of Professional Psychology, and her doctorate at the Pacifica Graduate Institute.

Prior to returning to college, Winegarden was also a professional bodybuilder, placing second in the National Physique Committee (NPC) Mastery Championships in 2003.

Winegarden said she has developed ways to talk to veterans to get them to open up.

Many veterans feel underappreciated after leaving the military and are unable to use their skills in civilian life, leading them to feel depressed, Winegarden said.

In the workplace, Winegarden said employers should try to provide group sessions and activities for veterans with co-workers, as well as place them in roles where they can use their leadership skills.

Dive into entrepreneurship

At California Scuba Center in Clovis, founder and owner Michael Fitzgerald has grown his business into a one-stop dive shop offering SCUBA certification training, service, sales, repairs, rentals as well as SCUBA dive trips to worldwide.

He also guides dive cleanups of lakes, such as Millerton Lake, and provides personal property search and recovery services and to families and sheriff’s departments searching for people who have drowned.

The California Scuba Center, which opened in 2019, has a VA testing center that allows veterans to use their GI Bill benefits for training.

Born and raised in Fresno, Fitzgerald joined the California Air National Guard to get a taste of the military. He joined the army full time in 1988.

He was discharged from active duty in 1996 and joined the California National Guard, remaining there until his retirement in 2009.

Fitzgerald aspired to a job in law enforcement. He went to the academy and became a reserve officer for the Fresno Police Department in 1998.

He became a full-time officer in 2001, retiring in 2013 as an investigator for the department’s anti-gang unit, MAGEC.

Fitzgerald served in Iraq from 2004 to 2006 in a special task force, gathering intelligence in local villages and finding high-value targets for arrest and interrogation.

Fitzgerald had planned a family trip to Hawaii and wanted his kids to be SCUBA certified.

He got on well with the scuba diving instructor and really got into the training aspect, getting more involved at the dive shop and the training center.

Fitzgerald and the instructor, nicknamed “Bear”, would discuss opening their own dive shop and training center and what they could offer that the few other local shops lacked.

“When the opportunity arose for me to open a boutique, I decided to do so. Bear came with me and now we’re doing our own thing and doing it the way we think to care for our diver community,” Fitzgerald said.

Including Bear, the California SCUBA Center has five instructors — more than any other local dive shop in town, he said.

For himself, and for many other veterans in the diving community, being underwater in a serene and peaceful environment is therapeutic. Many veterans also enjoy using the scuba gear, the group camaraderie, and the feeling of being on a mission.

His military and police experience has also disciplined him for the way he runs his business.

“We don’t have a diving club, we have a family of divers. This is how we treat everyone, even our new divers. For me, it has to do with how it was in the military with my fellow veterans and team members. I have no employees, my staff is my family,” Fitzgerald said.

In the future, Fitzgerald would like to open a new facility that would have its own pools for scuba diving practice, as well as pools that could be used by the public for swimming and aerobics lessons.