The word tough is thrown around in business all the time: a tough negotiator, a tough adversary. The word gets overused, so when someone like Dawn Halfaker comes on the scene, you want to stop and say: No, she really is tough.
By now, Halfaker has told the story of June 19, 2004, hundreds of times. She was three years out of West Point, working as a military police officer in Baquba, Iraq, and was on a nighttime patrol. "I was in the first vehicle of the patrol and came around the corner," she says, "and started taking fire and took an RPG, a rocket-propelled grenade, through the front of our vehicle. It tore down the side, and tore off one of my squad leaders' arms, and also tore off most of my arm, my shoulder, and did a lot of other damage as well." Halfaker spent 12 arduous months at Walter Reed hospital. She was released in July 2005. She'd assumed her future would be in the military. Now it couldn't be; she couldn't be a soldier without an arm. So: tough. She'd have to find something else to do.
Halfaker began consulting on security projects, and in 2006 incorporated Halfaker & Associates. The pressure of hiring employees, assembling bids for government contracts, and doing most of the actual consulting work was tremendous, but Halfaker was determined not to let the stress show. The employees "just knew they would show up and get paid, and that's all they should be worried about, I think," she says. "It's a very similar model to being in the military. I wasn't always on every mission; I wasn't always with my soldiers; but if I made sure they were fed, happy, well trained, and had the resources to be able to survive combat, then I was doing my job and providing leadership."
Halfaker has 50 employees and expects 2007 revenue to reach $1.4 million; she wants to double the head count and reach $4 million in sales in 2008. Starting next month, she'll expand into the civilian world, selling industrial and physical- security services. You want to tell her that sounds like a tough transition. Then you remember whom you're talking to.