American Legion Small Business Task Force member Mark Gross served in the Army, used the GI Bill to obtain his college degree and then worked at the Department of Justice for four years. He left government and worked in corporate sales for five years but after the Sept. 11, terrorist attacks, he again felt the call to serve.
“Rejoining the military, although the fastest way to serve, would be difficult with a new mortgage and a young and growing family,” he said. “Re-entering government as a civilian was also not preferred as it would be difficult to guarantee a direct supporting role to the fight.” After weighing the various options, Gross decided to support the armed forces and federal agencies through a contracting platform, where he would be able to support the military.
This decision was the impetus in establishing Oak Grove Technologies, where Gross is president and chief operating officer. Oak Grove, which employs 550 workers, continues to achieve a steady upward growth within government contracting. Headquartered in Raleigh, N.C., with a branch in Alexandria, Va., it also has a 250-acre tactical training center and cultural training center, collectively called the Oak Grove Training Center, 50 miles to the south in Hoffman, N.C.
The Oak Grove Training Center supports a myriad of requirements ranging from U.S. Special Operations Forces and Law Enforcement, individual and collective tactical training and what is known in the community as Full Mission Profiles, which includes various roll player and scenario support.
Gross spoke with The American Legion about his company, the business task force and more.
The American Legion: Tell me about becoming an entrepreneur. What did you major in?
Mark Gross: My undergraduate degree is in philosophy, although not necessarily a STEM or business degree, it taught me critical thinking. This critical thinking skill applied during my government service and then referenced back to my military service is essentially applied in everything I have done. Bottom line, all of these various experiences has helped me to various degrees, and at critical times. The military helped me understand teamwork, both how to build a team and how you need a strong team around you to succeed. The government and working for DoJ – I viewed that as advocacy. Corporate America taught me what business development, operations and stress was all about. I think all combined prepared me well for launching my own business.
Q: How did you prepare yourself to run your own business?
A: It started with an idea, but I first had to quit my job. I had never written a business plan, but figured out how to write one based on my various experiences and through self-study. I started with an idea at my kitchen table and here we are 14 years later. We have about 550 employees and support 78 exercises a year just for the U.S. Army Special Operations. We specialize in large exercises on unconventional warfare for the various Special Forces groups. These Battalion or Group level exercises are the ways and means for preparing these Special Operations units to accomplish their warfighting tasks in the various theaters of operations. It is significantly more difficult to attempt to replicate this training in the various theaters due to multiple limiting factors, notwithstanding prohibitive costs in both dollars and political capital. We can’t take a 1,500-man element overseas and go unnoticed, so we do it here in the U.S.
Q: Your company works with DoD officials and then they outline the training. What specifically does your company do?
A: The Army trains its own soldiers and we support that training. We support this training through multiple avenues. A few notable examples are scenario development, opposing force role players (military or irregular forces) and using multiple role players such as ambassadors, chiefs of station. These and other critical players have specific roles which at times are essentially obstacles that must be negotiated in order for our Special Operations Forces to succeed in various operational environments. For instance, when they are overseas they are interacting with the Embassy Country Team, so they must understand how to communicate and show dignitaries proper respect while observing the required protocols when operating out of the embassies.
Q: Let’s transition to your role on the Legion’s Small Business Task Force. Talk about the support you give to the veterans and servicemembers through that avenue.
A: I started Oak Grove April 19, 2003, and at the time I realized that the veterans and disabled veterans community had not established goals in federal procurement, so I volunteered for the Legion task force and advocated through The American Legion at Capitol Hill for about two years to get legislation passed. What that did was made it a statutory requirement of 3 percent for service-disabled veterans for federal procurement dollars. I can’t stress enough that The American Legion was instrumental in that effort. There is no question about it, we have worked across lanes with some of the different VSOs. I am extremely pleased with The American Legion. Bottom line, when The American Legion takes on a mission, it gets accomplished. Once I met the 3 percent federal procurement goal, I stayed involved with the Legion because I am a big believer in the stronger the community is, the better the disabled veteran business community is, and the more say you have.
Q: Why is it important to you to help out other veterans who are starting their businesses?
A: Simply put, for as many programs as there are out there, like the government and the SBA, none of the programs, in my experience, really provide the requisite assistance needed to be successful. It may be different today, but when I started there was really no real assistance. Essentially, they would give you some flyers and say here is what you do, so I became frustrated early on.
One thing or maxim I believe is “how is a bureaucrat going to advise an entrepreneur.” They get paid every two weeks whether they are successful at their role or not. I am looking to earn an income so the pressure is on me, or the other entrepreneurs, far more than it is on the person sitting behind the government desk. I believe the Legion does a lot of things differently, and I mean simply they are better in their support to small business. For example, the Washington Conference meeting. In this forum the Legion brings in people with real skills to advise and that’s really what I wanted to hear when I started. I didn’t want to hear the fluff. I wanted to hear what’s not so great and I wanted to hear it “unvarnished,” because starting a business is a lot of hard work.
Q: There are lots of options out there. What does the Small Business Task Force provide that others don’t?
A: I would say that we follow and track every issue and how it impacts veterans and entrepreneurs, so it’s very good advocacy. We have people who volunteer their time and opinions for the task force and we are all out in the community, so it’s pretty diverse and spread out across the U.S. I think a number of us from the task force served on the White House Advisory Committee, as I did. It was a three-year term advising both Congress and the White House on veterans business issues. A number of those folks are also on the task force, so you have a lot of corporate knowledge, notwithstanding good advocates that participate.
Q: Getting back to your company for a little bit. Is Oak Grove Technologies using virtual reality as part of the training it offers?
A: We do. We have a new learning division, so we do live, virtual and constructive modeling and simulations and other computer-based training scenarios. You take a learning objective, whatever that is, and we will create that learning environment in a gaming type program, to include in a 3D environment. It’s all customized to the specific need. We have done multiple ones for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Brandon Hall Awards recognize a number of different programs and we have won the last two years. I think we have won four Brandon Hall gold awards. The last one was for Suicide Risk Prevention for Veterans so when they go to the VA website, all of the content and graphics are what we created.
Q: Do you see that virtual reality part growing?
A: I do see that growing, especially as training dollars decrease. But bottom line, you can never replace live training with virtual, however, virtual reality training enables individuals and units to practice skills which are then validated in live training. The premise is we are not wasting scarce dollars on easily avoided mistakes, which only cost the individual and units some pride. My kids generation, the teenagers, and young men and women in the military are very attuned to their iPads and iPhones so they naturally assimilate into the virtual reality environment, but you can’t replace live training, especially for critical things.
Virtual reality is a great training enhancer for mandatory training events, which you have to do annually. These two training environments, virtual and live, both are complementary, but I can’t stress enough, virtual, although inherently cheaper, cannot replace live training.
Q: Where did the name Oak Grove Technologies come from?
A: Raleigh is the City of Oaks, so Oak Grove and technologies is a little benign for some of the things we do, but it kind of fits well. Early on at one point, we were Oak Grove Software, but although I came up with the name, I wasn’t enamored with the construct. Consequently, I sent out emails to our employees for ideas on a new moniker. Essentially they came up with what we could legally call ourselves in North Carolina and was available, so the employees actually chose the name.
Q: Anything you want to mention or tell me that I haven’t asked about or you haven’t had a chance to talk about yet?
A: I am a big proponent of The American Legion and what we as members do. I have a great appreciation for the great work the Legion does from the inside. I think there is still this perception out there with some folks who think it is all about “going down to the local watering hole for a 50 cent draft.” But when you start telling them what the Legion has done, like this 3 percent requirement that the government now has and how they are going to benefit as a direct result of The American Legion, their position changes.
I know undoubtedly it was The American Legion that implemented the GI Bill. And going back to the beginning of this interview, this particular benefit, i.e., the GI Bill, directly benefited me and began my path to establishing Oak Grove Technologies.