As told to Patrick J. Sauer
Randy Slager established Catapult Technology while battling a degenerative spinal injury he suffered as an information systems officer in the Army. It was a hard road, made more so by the discrimination he faced from potential lenders. Slager kept at it, not just building a $30 million IT company but also campaigning tirelessly to open up opportunities for disabled vets to secure contracts with federal agencies. On Capitol Hill he advocated for the Veterans Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development Act of 1999 and pushed the Small Business Administration to recognize physical disability as a category of social disadvantage, thus helping disabled business owners to compete for federal set-aside contracts and qualify for the SBA's 8(a) Business Development Program, which now has 240 certified companies. He was an influential supporter of a 2003 executive order that increased opportunities in service-disabled federal contracting. "There's a discrimination that veterans who are missing a limb don't have the skills," says Slager, "but their brains are fine. Service is an honorable thing, but then we forget about soldiers in the federal marketplace."
My father was an immigrant who came over from Holland after the Nazi occupation. He had limited education but worked his way up to become manager of concessions for 20th Century Fox for all of Colorado and throughout the Rocky Mountain region. When the courts ruled the studios couldn't own the theaters, he was part of the big lay-offs, but he had started his own business recording background music on eight-tracks for doctors' and lawyers' offices and shopping malls. He started doing that full-time and then had lots of other small businesses -- a ranch, restaurants, rental cabins in Estes Park. He created his own opportunities, and I learned by watching him.
I was injured in a training exercise in Germany in 1978. A bone spur penetrated and partially severed my spinal cord. CAT scans weren't available back then and I suffered additional injuries when they tried to find it. I spent nine months in the hospital and underwent two operations. As time progressed, my limp worsened, and when the cane came out, I couldn't hide it. In 2001, I had titanium rods implanted. They are fused to the vertebrae to take pressure off the spinal canal.
I worked for the FBI for several years as lead scientist on the systems for an automation of 59 field offices. My back injury precluded me from becoming an agent, so I was maxed out with the FBI and looked outside to the private sector. I had a company from 1990 to 1996 with three other partners. We were consulting with the FAA on a huge procurement consolidating non-air-traffic computers. Unfortunately, two of the partners weren't interested in growing and had a better way to spend the money. Let's just say they didn't want an audit. I ended up in four years of litigation.
In 1996, I started Catapult Technology, an IT services and management consulting company, and quickly secured a contract with the Department of Transportation. We were doing fine as fix-it guys for the DOT, but outside of that we kept hitting roadblock after roadblock. I started to notice that my disability was the main topic of conversation anytime I went to a bank. I couldn't get any money to develop new business. In 1998, I applied for the federal 8(a) set-aside program, which was implemented in response to discrimination, but I was rejected. I wasn't angry, but I felt that if we wage war and get in harm's way on behalf of the government, we should have an opportunity to work for the government.
I attended an outreach in Baltimore for small-business owners attended by former Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi. I was surprised to find that I was the only disabled-veteran business owner there out of some 300 attendees. I explained to Principi that the companies are out there, we just needed some help. Principi provided me with a congressional committee report detailing the absence of disabled-veteran businesses working on the federal side. I went to lobby members of Congress on the Hill and address the general counsel of the House Small Business Committee. I told my story repeatedly, anything to aid in the process of improving veterans' opportunities. When it came to a vote, there was unanimous congressional approval to open up the programs. In the meantime, I had applied for, and received, an SDB (small disadvantaged business) certification, and when I reapplied for 8(a) status in 2000, we were accepted. That allows Catapult to compete for prime federal contracts, and we now work with a variety of government agencies, including the Joint Forces Command, HUD, and Homeland Security.
On September 11, I was working on a proposal for the DOT to essentially tie all its communications together -- e-mail, phones, and 160 new servers. DOT put us to work because we were in a unique position. We excelled in bringing cyber security up to speed. It was a time when everyone wanted to do something, and we were fortunate to have the opportunity to contribute. The DOT contract was our big break, but on September 27 I had major back surgery. We brought on 50 people, but I was still wearing all the hats, so within a week, I was back at Catapult. I could only work for four hours at a time, rest two, work four, and I was loaded up on Oxycontin for five months. It affects short-term memory, so I had to write down everything I needed to remember before meetings.
Over the next five years, I want to grow to 1,000 employees and take on the big defense contractors, within certain niches, for $50 million contracts from the Department of Defense. My only concern is my back. As it continues to deteriorate, maybe I will go strictly to a strategic CEO role.
The VA finally has a group promoting disabled-veteran entrepreneurs in the federal marketplace, so we are making progress, but it hasn't even reached 0.5% of the 3% procurement goal. The regulations are there; we just need to ensure that talented vets have access to the tools to compete with big business. Thankfully, the stigma associated with veterans from the Vietnam era is gone. When I look at the sacrifices the troops are making in Afghanistan and Iraq, I know that their minds are active and I don't want their options to be limited.