Mark Masters learned how to perform in high-pressure scenarios as an 18-year-old fighting wildfires in Idaho. Now he runs Chloeta [shuh-lay-tuh], an emergency management staffing company he founded in 2009 to help businesses and the U.S. government deal with natural and human-caused disasters like Superstorm Sandy and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Here, he tells Inc. how he went from jumping out of helicopters to leading a business that landed at No. 606 on Inc.'s annual list of the fastest-growing private companies in America. --As told to Dan Whateley
Prior to starting Chloeta, I worked as a wildland firefighter for the federal government. I started that at 18 and even spent a couple of years doing what I enjoyed the most: helicopter rappelling. They basically chuck you out of an aircraft to fight a forest fire. You slide down a 300-foot rope and you have everything on you that you need to survive for up to 72 hours.
It turns out, when you're going to get married and have a family, jumping out of aircraft for a living is not necessarily a viable career option. I took on more of an administrative position with the National Interagency Fire Center [the nation's support center for wildland firefighting] in Arkansas. I did that for about two-and-a-half years and then decided to come back home to Oklahoma where I started Chloeta.
This was the peak of the economic downturn. I was 26 years old. I had no assets to speak of. I had no cash to start a business, and all I had was an idea. It literally started as a one-man band in a dirt-floor barn. Then we graduated to my garage for a bit, and then a state-funded business incubator for three years.
I'm a proud citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. If it weren't for my tribe, we would not be in business. I had no background in business whatsoever. I went to the capital of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and I sat down with the Small Business Assistance Center folks and they were the first people who said, "We'll look at your idea and tell you if it's legitimate." I sat there for three days straight, day and night basically, and they helped me rewrite my business plan. That was the first time I really got any encouragement.
Today, Chloeta is a temporary staffing agency for the United States government. If you flip on CNN and you see something bad happening, chances are if we're not there assisting firsthand then we've had some role in training some of those people who are responding to that incident. We could get a call from a federal agency when we have a hurricane and they could say, "We need 150 people immediately."
The government may need anything from a wildland firefighter to an armed security guard to a nurse to a pilot to an emergency manager or anything in between. We even staff some scientists and engineers.
Probably the biggest moment in the history of the company came in late 2016. We had been trying to get a contract to do business with the U.S. Department of Defense to provide some wildland fire consulting. Up until then, our whole business model was centered around bad things happening. Diversifying into non-weather-dependent and nonvolatile revenue streams like consulting was crucial for the continued growth and success of the company.
It took about two-and-a-half years of pitching, meeting, and negotiating with the Defense Department on a single problem they had that we could solve: helping the Air Force get better prepared for wildfires at 35 bases. We wrote fire management plans, conducted hazardous fuels reduction assessments, and staffed firefighters to protect critical military infrastructure from the threat of wildfires.
That first $4 million contract, followed by another $4 million contract, was immensely helpful in getting us on a more sustainable trajectory. Plus, it helped us then land contracts for all kinds of other services that the Department of Defense needs.
We are far different than your typical 8-to-5 business with people sitting in cubicles. We maintain a 24/7, 365-day response posture. We still have traditional HR and accounting like any other business would. The difference is, here, every person in the entire company knows that he or she could be called upon to either work extended hours or to deploy to the field to support the mission of our clients in an emergency.