A Bold Balance
Black Hawk Down survivor, Vetrepreneur of the Year, Huntsville small business owner Mike Durant fights to keep a balance between expansion and employee esprit.
After a stint working for major defense contractors, Mike Durant founded Pinnacle Solutions in 2008 with partner Jimmy Moore.
When Mike Durant’s Black Hawk helicopter was shot down during combat in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, he was attacked by a street mob, sustaining severe injuries, and, as the only surviving member of his crew, was held prisoner for 11 days by a Somali warlord. During his captivity, Durant’s captors released a video of him that was viewed around the world and made his the most recognizable face of the U.S.-Somalia conflict.
Eight years later, when “Black Hawk Down” became an Oscar-winning film, Durant’s ordeal became well known and understood around the world. And in 2003, when Durant published his account of the experience, “In the Company of Heroes,” the book became a bestseller.
For his military accomplishments, Durant, a native of New Hampshire, was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, Purple Heart, Bronze Star and POW Medal, among others. He went on in 2008 to launch a business, Huntsville-based Pinnacle Solutions, a defense contractor offering aviation simulation and training. Last year, based on his business success, he was named Vetrepreneur of the Year by the National Veteran-Owned Business Association.
FROM SOLDIER TO ENTREPRENEUR
As Durant struggled to recover from his injuries in Somalia in 1993, he learned that the U.S. Army intended to ground him. He would no longer be allowed to fly. As a longtime pilot struggling to get his life back, Durant couldn’t picture a life without flying. So he decided to show Army decision makers that he was capable of piloting again — by running the Marine Corps Marathon, just 10 months after his helicopter went down.
Determined to come back fighting, Durant finished the marathon in August 1994 with a race time of three hours and 37 minutes. “The authority who was going to retire me could not say ‘no’ to my desire to continue to serve,” Durant told a Huntsville crowd at the National Prayer Luncheon in 2010. “After I ran that race, it was a no-brainer decision. He signed the waiver and I flew for five more years.”
With the same determination, faith and perseverance that got him through his crash, hostage ordeal and the marathon less than a year later, Durant has built a successful business under sometimes difficult budget constraints. After retiring from the U.S. Army in 2001, he and his wife decided to settle in Huntsville. With the city’s deep military connections, including the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command and Redstone Arsenal, plus NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville seemed like a good fit.
After arriving in Huntsville, Durant worked for two different companies that performed government contracts before deciding to launch his own business.
“I found that I enjoyed the small business culture much more, after working for a large business for a few years, and thought that if I really wanted to recreate that small business feel, then my best option was to start my own company,” he says. “There were changes occurring within the large business that I felt made the situation worse, and I decided that it was time to either move on or create a startup, and I chose the latter.”
To launch Pinnacle Solutions, Durant partnered with Jimmy Moore, who is co-owner and vice president. The two worked out of Durant’s home for about a month before locating in Huntsville’s Regus business center, where they shared office space and a conference room with other startups for six months. Today, Pinnacle is located in its own building in Providence Town Centre, in a thriving area of western Huntsville.
In the city’s “fertile ground” for Department of Defense contracting, Pinnacle Solutions has found its sweet spot. The company develops training systems, which include computer-based training products, such as flight simulators to train both aircrew and maintenance personnel, Durant says. Pinnacle also provides training and engineering services for customers, which includes providing technical and flight crew services for various types of aircraft.
“The largest portion of the company is focused on logistics support, analysis and services,” Durant says. “In these areas, we produce technical documents to include operator’s manuals, maintenance manuals and interactive electronic technical manuals for both ground and air vehicles.”
Mike Durant (above, foreground) in the cockpit of an MH-60 Black Hawk in Somalia, prior to the “Black Hawk Down” incident.
Durant set a goal to achieve 18 percent revenue growth each year, and so far Pinnacle Solutions has exceeded that goal. After five years in business, Pinnacle Solutions had grown to annual revenues of more than $10 million. It was ranked on the Inc. 500 list at No. 88 overall and No. 6 for government services. The company also grew to almost 80 employees, including more than 40 veterans.
These milestones contributed to Durant’s selection as Vetrepreneur of the Year in 2013, after he was nominated by an anonymous employee.
“They were looking for a veteran who had grown a successful business, shown the entrepreneurial spirit in other ways and also overcome adversity at other points in his or her life,” Durant says.
“When they evaluated the success of Pinnacle, saw that I had written a New York Times Bestseller and also overcome the adversity of being a prisoner of war in Somalia, they decided that I deserved the recognition. I’m honored simply to have been nominated by one of our employees. Having been selected takes it to another level.”
Durant’s experience as an American hero and soldier prepared him well for life as a business owner. “As a career soldier, you learn a lot about leadership, but more importantly, you learn the impact that each person has on the success of an organization,” he says. “Recognizing the value of people has, to me, been the most important lesson I’ve tried to carry over into the business world.”
With an employee retention rate of 95 percent over the life of the company, Durant believes Pinnacle Solutions has been successful in making workers feel valued.
OVERCOMING BUSINESS CHALLENGES
“The greatest challenge comes in trying to continue to grow the business while keeping costs under control,” says Durant. “For us, that pretty much boils down to finding the right balance between controlling indirect costs and being careful not to overwork the staff. I try to be very conscious of how hard everyone is working and not allow aggressive growth objectives to impact the work-life balance for our employees. There are a few key contributors who do work harder than I’d like them to, but the plan is for that to be temporary while we evolve as a company.”
Because the U.S. government has been Pinnacle Solutions’ primary customer thus far, federal budget woes have presented another challenge. “I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s a tough environment right now and is likely to be for the foreseeable future,” Durant says.
But to overcome that issue, Pinnacle Solutions has put plans in place to diversify its customer base and already has found some success winning commercial and international contracts. “We’ve also tried hard to not let the government fiscal constraints impact our core values and continue to believe that although we’re in a highly competitive environment, there is work to be won and if we can offer the best products and services at the best price, we will continue to be successful,” Durant says. “With multiple [contract] wins already in 2014, that strategy seems to be working.”
Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.