What’s the difference between military experience and an MBA?
"Semantics,” said Maj. Steve Gagner, a decorated soldier and small business owner from northern Vermont.
Any service member knows how to work hard, build a team and accomplish goals — skills they teach you in business school — he said.
“I think the military actually uniquely positions us to be entrepreneurs.”
For Gagner, 39, the two go hand in hand. When he’s not in uniform as the executive officer of the Army Mountain Warfare School, he’s brewing beer at the company he co-founded with his best friend and fellow Vermont National Guardsman. Gagner’s 14th Star Brewing Co. donates much of its proceeds to military causes, and he is putting the finishing touches on a new distillery that will double as an entrepreneurship training program for transitioning vets.
On July 11, Gagner will receive the first-ever Military Times Rebootcamp Entrepreneur of the Year award at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a bit surreal,” he said when reached for comment by phone, fresh off a full day of training at the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. “It’s hard to believe that our little brewery daydream in the mountains of Afghanistan had turned into something that has garnered enough attention to be considered for the award.”
Gagner enlisted in the Vermont National Guard in 1996, attended Norwich University, a private military college, and commissioned as an officer in 2003. The majority of his career has been on active duty with the National Guard, but he served on active duty in the Army for four years. Gagner deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
14th Star, named for Vermont’s place in the line up of the 50 states, started on scratch paper in the back of Gagner’s small, green Army-issued notebook during his last deployment in 2010. Trying to keep busy between patrols in a remote area with no power, Gagner jotted down numbers, guessing at what ingredients might cost and how much the beer would sell for.
He was doing it to keep his mind sharp, he said — not because he was seriously planning to start the business. Though he wanted to be his own boss someday, he’d imagined that happening after he retired from the military.
But when he came home, Gagner said he talked about it so much his wife Nicole finally told him, “Do it, or shut up.”
He got to work.
His days began at 4 a.m., crunching numbers in the early mornings before going to work for the Army. Then he’d go home, spend a couple hours with Nicole and the kids and work on the business again until 11 p.m.
Production began in May 2012 with 60 gallons that first month; now, the brewery is hitting 6,000 gallons a week, he said.
With names like “Follow Me IPA” and “Valor Amber Ale,” 14th Star beers are currently sold in four New England states. “Follow Me,” a tribute to the Army infantry, may be making its way to Fort Benning later this year.
14th Star’s beers are among Brig. Gen. Michael Heston’s favorites. He appreciates it not only for the taste, but also because portions of the proceeds go toward supporting charities. These include Purple Hearts Reunited, a nonprofit that returns lost medals and military keepsakes to veterans or their family members, and the Josh Pallotta Fund for veterans struggling with their transition.
According to information provided by the company, 3 percent of 14th Star’s gross revenue, as well as another 4 percent in materials, time and in-kind donations, went to military causes last year.
Heston, who has known Gagner since the now-major was a child whose father served under Heston, said the younger man is the type of person you can depend on, both in and out of uniform. When Gagner was a professor of military science at Norwich University a few years ago, student enlistments in the Guard increased significantly.
“His ability to relate to the ROTC students and teach and become a mentor to a lot of those students, it was kind of, ‘How do we duplicate this guy? How do we get more? What’s the formula to get this guy duplicated to get him into other schools?’” Heston said.
After more than 22 years as a soldier, Gagner is eyeing retirement from the military in March 2020. By then, his new venture, Danger Close Craft Distilling, will be up and running, training prospective veteran entrepreneurs in the everyday work of running a business, such as sourcing raw materials, marketing and managing employees.
Guard Capt. Zachariah Fike, a Danger Close co-founder who nominated Gagner for the Military Times award, said Gagner has already set himself up for a successful transition – something many veterans struggle with after the military. Instead of letting the key to his success remain a secret, his friend wants to share his knowledge with other veterans, Fike said.
Juggling it all as an active-duty soldier “certainly wasn’t without sacrifice,” Gagner said. His advice to others in the same boat? Schedule time around military schedules for working both in and on the business, and learn to delegate. Also, take advantage of the skills you learned in the military.
“For example, in my officer education, the Army has trained me to identify problems and develop a systems-based approach to solving that problem, which we use at the brewery,” he said.
In the end, the risks of starting a business don’t compare with the risks of military duty, so “don’t be afraid, and just do it,” Gagner said. If for some reason the brewery was to go under, no one is dying. He’d still have his family and lessons learned.
“Ask yourself the really blunt question of, ‘What is the worst that can happen?’” he said. “I think there’s far more upside than downside.”
Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.