A Conversation with Jared Zabaldo…

I can’t calculate what it saves USAMM to treat people right, but almost no one quits our company for a better position elsewhere.  We don’t lose experience or have to go through that taxing hiring process.  Who knows what that really saves you?  You almost can’t calculate it.”

~Jared Zabaldo,  President, Business Operations, USAMM

Almost exactly twelve years ago, I was a newly-minted Army specialist, straight out of basic training, standing in a squad with fellow future 46Qs—the Army’s preferred designation for Soldiers who serve as public affairs specialists/print journalists. One of those fellow squad members was Jared Zabaldo. Tall, square-jawed, crewcut, effortlessly achieving a perfect score on his physical fitness test, he looked like belonged on a recruiting poster somewhere.

Jared Zabaldo, when he was known as SGT Zabaldo, serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Jared Zabaldo, when he was known as SGT Zabaldo, serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Fast-forward a decade or so. I don’t know if he ever made it to a recruiting poster, but Jared has been deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, working for GEN Petraeus’ Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTC-I). He served honorably as an Army Reservist and was within one semester of graduating law school when he left to succeed as a business owner and operator of USA Military Medals. Somewhere in there, he also found time to get married and raise an adorable family.

Throughout the years, especially as the economy roils and toils, I’ve read with interest Jared’s insights into being an American entrepreneur, running a business, and growing that business even through a general downturn in the financial and corporate world.

Currently, USAMM employs about 70 personnel, and occupies an 18,000-square foot facility in Milwaukie, Oregon. Jared describes it as a “dress uniform superstore,” able to supply servicemembers with tailoring, ribbons, and made-to-order items. Additionally, servicemembers should start noticing USAMM self-service kiosks in their local AAFES and Navy Exchange stores.

About a month ago, the New York Times Magazine published an article by Adam Davidson entitled “Thinking Outside the Big Box.”  The article described how many large corporations are coming to the realization that treating workers better leads to more profitable business. (I.S. note – I’m cribbing egregiously here and encourage you to read the piece in full.) After reading some of Jared’s thoughts on the article, I got in touch to see if I could get him to come talk about it “on the record.”

“I think the reason that many employers don’t embrace a philosophy that treats employees fairly—in the absence of some scientific study—has got to be simply that they lack empathy from the get-go,” said Zabaldo, when asked why he thought some business owners and operators might need a magazine article to tell them to treat their employees well. “Either that or they’re just fatally obtuse—narrowly focusing on numbers without another thought as to what influences their calculation outside of their spreadsheets.”

In addition to cultural things, such as providing lunch every Friday, as well as organizing events for his employees, Zabaldo noted that at USAMM, they also keep an eye out for employees who are overworking themselves.

“I don’t believe in 60 hour weeks,” said Zabaldo. “Or even 50 hour weeks.  I really believe in balance as the true long-term strategy when it comes to my employees.”

Jared Zabaldo, now also known as "Dad."

Jared Zabaldo, now also known as “Dad.”

Having a heart does sometimes come with a price. In his comments on the article, Jared noted that sometimes a comfortable work environment can lead to a sense of entitlement on behalf of certain employees—or even job seekers. I asked him to talk about what he meant.

Sometimes, he explained, employees will come to expect their employer to go above and beyond the normal business relationship, even when, for the employer, this means getting into a situation where the return on investment of time and funds becomes less. However, one way that employers can head this off is to become and remain engaged with their employees, interacting with them, and keeping in touch.

“The goal, really, is to preempt [feelings of entitlement] by staying engaged and hiring the kind of people who can appreciate it,” said Zabaldo. “In fairness, though, in our firm it is almost non-existent.  Our employees are awesome humans and police their own environment pretty aggressively.  That’s our culture and it seems to work and I love them all for doing it.”

Although he does his best to achieve balance for his employees, in the beginning Zabaldo routinely worked 90 hours a week to get the business off the ground. He spoke of the challenges of starting a new business, namely, being willing to put everything you have into it, and not to be afraid to make mistakes, as will inevitably happen.

“But if you survive [the mistakes], you’ll be armed with invaluable experience that will result in your business being stronger and more lethal than the day before,” said Zabaldo. “Looking back, I can’t believe all the things I didn’t know before I started this thing.”

Zabaldo credits his military experience with helping him to get through that initial startup time.

“The one great thing the military gives you as a Soldier or Marine, etc., is perspective,” said Zabaldo. “My time in Iraq was incredibly stressful.  The workweeks were long.  The days were long.  The mission was taxing.  And, oh by the way, you’re getting shot at.  You can come away with a resilience that’s lasting from an experience like that.  I definitely did and it’s been invaluable to me.”

When asked for some helpful advice for men and women who are considering starting their own businesses, Zabaldo said:

“There is no one single secret to running and building a business.  The truth is you have to do so MANY things right.  The idea has to be right.  You have to have insights, sure.  But you also have to be intuitive, smart, engaged, willing to risk it all, caring, aggressive, lucky, and a million other things.  Basically, you’re going to make a ton of mistakes and you just hope that none of them are of the catastrophic variety.”

I enjoyed the chance to pick my old colleague’s brain, and only wished that the conversation could have gone on longer. (Although at this point, I would probably have to do a two-parter.) However, interested readers can keep up with USAMM on their BLOG or Facebook page. Before he left, I asked Jared, who was honorably discharged in 2012, if there were anything he missed about being in the military.

I miss that special feeling of putting on a uniform,” said Zabaldo. “I remember going on a run in formation in the early morning darkness at Fort Meade, Maryland, while at DINFOS and singing cadence in the frigid air and thinking it was the most badass thing ever because there was only a small, select group of people in America actually doing such a thing at that very moment and I was one of them.  Best feeling ever.  Thanks to all our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen, and Coasties for all they are!”

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