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Wounded Vet Finds Career Transition as Construction Firm CEO

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Anvil Builders
Anvil Builders staff and CEO HT Tran (far right) on-site at the Transbay Transit Center project in San Francisco.
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Going from combat to a civilian career can be tough for returning veterans, especially those who have been injured in service.

But Hien Manh Tran, known as HT, is making the transition from recovering in an Army hospital to running construction jobsites as founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Anvil Builders, a full-service general contractor with 50 employees.

Tran, a 34-year-old former Army sergeant, was severely injured by an improvised explosive device while patrolling with his unit in Iraq in 2008.

Injuries to his vision, brain and legs sent the Purple Heart recipient to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for 15 months.

While recuperating, Tran met an unusual hospital volunteer: Bob Nilsson, a retired U.S. Marine Corps captain and former vice president of Turner Construction Co.

Nilsson introduced Tran and other recovering vets to a program he started called 100 Entrepreneurs, which instructs wounded vets on how to create their own businesses and civilian jobs after they leave the hospital.

"With the class, we try to turn on a light bulb in their heads. We are looking for people who want to become entrepreneurs," says Nilsson, a former company commander who served in Vietnam.

"HT was impressive from the first day I met him," says Nilsson. "He is exceedingly bright, and I sensed ... that he wanted to be his own boss and run his own company."

Tran says the classes taught him about federal contracting, construction and the procurement world but also helped keep his mind focused and prevent onset of post-traumatic stress and depression while in the hospital.

Tran had earned a degree in business marketing from San Jose State University before joining the Army, but his Iraq deployment provided "on-the-job training" in construction management, as his platoon worked to turn abandoned buildings and outposts into habitable spaces.

"We built out of survival," says Tran, adding that work often occurred while under enemy fire.

"Being an infantry soldier, we were sent out in the middle of nowhere, so we had to be a jack of all trades, improvise and use our own personal skills, along with our military training, to do what we had to do. This is how I fell in love with construction."

After leaving Walter Reed, Tran joined Northrup Grumman as a procurement officer, gained additional training in construction management and founded Anvil Builders in 2010.

Additional industry expertise comes from company partners Alan Guy, who is Anvil's COO and a former Webcor Builders project manager, and corporate secretary Richard Leider, who is a seasoned real estate and private equity strategist, the company says.

The firm now employs five service-disabled veterans and plans to increase that number as it pushes to graduate from small-business status.

"I think it is a good transition for a veteran to go into the construction industry because it mirrors the military model," says Tran. "In construction, there is a chain of command, the work is very task-oriented, the communication is very direct, and it's a teamwork environment."

Tran says being seen as a "legitimate" firm was one of the biggest challenges he faced in starting the company.

He participates in work under California's Disabled Veteran Business Enterprise program, which lets state agencies set a goal of earmarking 3% of all contracts to companies owned by disabled veterans.

"By doing due diligence and by self-performing all our own work, that gave us a lot of credibility," says Tran.

Since its founding, Tran says Anvil Builders has executed more than 100 construction contracts, with a 2014 revenue goal of about $17 million to $20 million.

He says his company does about 80% public-sector work and 20% private-sector work.

Currently, the company is installing and operating temporary elevator lifts on San Francisco's $4.5-billion Transbay Transit Center project, which is set to open in 2017, and in charge of the $1.1-million renovation of San Francisco's historic 80-year-old Coit Tower, to be completed this spring.

"I've felt for a long time that having served successfully in combat tours is the equivalent of many years of college and that these vets have a built-in sixth sense on whom they can trust," says Nilsson.

Noting last month's launch of a White House and industry initiative to have construction firms pledge to hire 100,000 veterans over the next five years, Nilsson says he is "encouraged that the government is taking these steps with private-sector support."

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