As U.S. veterans return from abroad to a nation where unemployment still hovers above 8 percent, many are finding that it’s hard to get a job. Meanwhile, the country remains dependent upon the foreign fossil fuels that often create tensions that lead to armed conflicts.
Cleaning up toxic land and helping businesses stay eco-friendly
Bill Picard wants to do something about both those problems at once. A service-disabled Air Force veteran himself, Picard runs Advanced Environmental Solutions. The Worcester, Mass. company cleans up toxic pieces of land, evaluates the environmental impact of new building projects and advises organizations, including various government agencies, about environmental aspects of their operations.
Now, Picard has assembled a coalition of small businesses owned by service-disabled veterans to build charging stations for electric vehicles. With expertise in everything from choosing appropriate sites to building solar panel installations that can power the charging equipment, the businesses should be able to compete against companies many times their size for government contracts, he said. And, he said, they can make a point of hiring fellow veterans to do the work.
“If there is any group in the United States of America that deserves to lead the way in terms of getting off the foreign fuels, I think it’s veterans,” he said.
From serviceman to disabled veteran
Picard served from 1968 to 1975, spending much of that time in the Air Force Security Service, the intelligence arm of that branch of the military. He traveled to Okinawa, Taiwan and other parts of East Asia. He doesn’t like to talk much about what those years were like, but he returned to the U.S. disabled at a time when work was scarce.
“Bottom line, for me, was when I got out of the service the economy was in the toilet and there was an energy crisis,” he said. “All the same things we’re looking at right now played themselves out.”
Picard got his health issues under control, he said, but it took him more than two years to find a job. Eventually, he decided to go back to school and ended up with a Master’s degree in community planning with an environmental focus. He said he started thinking about environmental issues because of the use of chemicals in the military that hurt some returning vets. “I felt that we could either get very angry about it or do something about it,” he said.
Picard hasn’t looked back. He’s now worked in the environmental field for close to 30 years. In 2001, he formed AES and soon began getting contracts from government agencies. The company has brought polluted brownfields sites back to useable condition, helped the Department of Veterans Affairs revamp its facilities to be more environmentally conscious and handled a major contract with Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma dealing with hazardous industrial waste. The company’s employment rolls change with the contracts it wins, but it has employed as many as 22 people at a time.
Drawing upon military experience in the business world
Picard said his military experience helps him deal with the various government agencies. “You know you’re going to be looking at a number of acronyms for sure,” he said.
But, even more than that, he said the culture of the Air Force influenced his ability to run AES. “Having had the opportunity to participate and lead teams when I was in the military kind of gives me the opportunity to lead here and empower and enable my team to be successful,” he said. “It’s all about making sure they’ve got the right tools and they’re providing our customers with exceptional service. Military and federal contracting is pretty exacting, and we’ve been very successful, I would say.”
Helping and empowering fellow veterans
Beyond his career focus, Picard has been a constant advocate for veterans. He’s been sober for 32 years, he said, and he discovered years ago that being active on veterans’ issues filled the place in his life that had been occupied by alcohol. He was a founding member of Veterans Inc., a local Massachusetts group that supports veterans in need, and he served as the founding clerk of the Massachusetts Veterans’ Memorial Trust. Today he’s on the board of the National Veteran Small Business Coalition and also serves as a senior advisor to The Task Force for Veterans’ Entrepreneurship, or VET-Force, a group that helped pass a law setting aside some government contracts for businesses run by service-disabled veterans.
The coalition he is building now would take this work forward another step. Picard sees the design of electric cars improving rapidly, and he knows federal rules encourage the adoption of less carbon-intensive technology, trends that could lead to whole fleets of electric government vehicles. Between the different service-disabled veterans’ companies, they can plan locations for charging stations, and design, build and manage them. Picard would like to see them get contracts to build the stations on military bases, highways and other government locations.
He’s also reached out to labor unions whose members could help construct the stations. Many of the unions manage significant pension funds, and Picard believes vehicle charging stations could make a good investment for them. That would allow the government to begin putting the infrastructure for large electric vehicle systems in place without a big upfront investment. He said he’s approached a number of union money managers with the idea.
“In my efforts to date I’ve gotten nothing but ‘Hey, this makes tremendous sense,’” he said.
Picard said he’d like to see 40 percent of the jobs created for the projects set aside for returning veterans.
He’s already in conversation with the U.S. Army TACOM Life Cycle Management Command in Michigan, which is looking at prototypes for alternative fuel technologies for military vehicles. He said the Army would typically go to a large company for a project like this, but he believes his coalition—which has connections with major suppliers like General Electric—could handle the task.
Whether this particular opportunity comes through, Picard said he’s continuing to look at how he and his fellow veteran-entrepreneurs can make things happen in the alternative energy world. That could go beyond electrical charging stations to fueling stations for other kinds of fuel like compressed natural gas.
“We’d be enabling and empowering veterans to actually engage in the battle for energy independence, taking care of the environment,” he said. “It’s a kind of a win, win, win situation.”
Written by: Livia Gershon