Spotlight: HT Tran, Veteran and Entrepreneur

July 24, 2014

Former Turner Construction Company executive Robert “Bob” Nilsson founded The 100 Entrepreneurs Project nearly seven years ago, with the support of Turner staff, to provide wounded veterans and their families with information and resources, including classes in entrepreneurship, and help them make a new start after their time in the military. "We try to put the idea in their heads [that] if they're going to get out of the service, there are many opportunities to run their own businesses," Nilsson says.

HT Tran, CEO and President of the San Francisco-based civil engineering firm Anvil Builders, started his business with $10,000 and three business partners. In July of this year, the company will celebrate its four-year anniversary with close to $13 million in business.

"I think that's an incredible journey," Tran says.

Indeed, it is.

Tran never saw himself as a construction entrepreneur. The former U.S. Army Sergeant, who received his bachelor's degree in business marketing before enlisting in the military, says construction fell into his lapwhile serving as an infantry soldier in Iraq. Upon arrival, his unit had to build its base.

"We were dropped in the middle of nowhere. We were given four walls, gravel [and] obviously there was a lot of dirt and sand. We had to dig and build everything ourselves,” Tran says. The unit built its base, including the sanitary system, the burn pits and a protection layer of walls. Later, Tran and his fellow soldiers rebuilt compounds that were taken over by a special-forces unit. "We had to knock down the compound and rebuild it to the special unit's needs." The experience of knocking down walls and rebuilding would later prove essential when an improvised explosive device (IED) forced him to rebuild his own life.

On Mother’s Day of 2008, Tran was hit with an IED. Not remembering much that happened between the blast and ending up in the recovery room of a U.S. Army medical base, Tran only knows that his fellow soldiers worked tirelessly to revive him on the battlefield. "One of my guys thought I had taken my last breath," Tran recalls. Having suffered a traumatic brain injury and taking shrapnel to his neck and face, Tran now lives with a prosthetic eye as well as a titanium rod in his left femur that goes from his leg to his hip. In addition, he has broken fingers and severe scars on both of his hands. 

In the years since the IED explosion, Tran has had to rebuild his life and career in order to find fulfillment outside of the military. His transition into construction began when he was recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.  It was there that Tran met Robert “Bob” Nilsson.

 "100 Entrepreneurs and Bob Nilsson came to me at a time while I was recovering [and] I was very lost," Tran says. "When you're wounded and you're stuck in the hospital in the in-patient department, you're laying there and asking yourself, 'What am I going to do now? How is this going to affect my life?' A million questions run through your head."

"One day [the question] dawned on me, 'How can I help other veterans?' I had a lot of guys writing me to say they were about to get out soon and they didn't know what to do. [I thought] if I started a construction company, I would be able to hire veterans." According to Tran, construction offers the perfect transition for veterans leaving the military because of the work and the way information is communicated. "Communication is direct. There's a chain of command. The work is very task oriented—almost like warrior work. If you know your trade or your skill, you can excel at a very high rate. Or, there's plenty of movement if you feel like you do want to get promoted. There are so many things for you to learn." Tran also had the assurance that Nilsson and others he met through the 100 Entrepreneurs Project would be there to support his efforts. "Bob let me know, 'When you're ready to do this, we're here to help you out.’"

In the past four years, Tran and his partners have built Anvil Builders into a successful small business that has worked with several large general contractors including Turner. For instance, the company just completed a site utility job with Turner and was recently awarded a contract working with San Francisco's Transbay Joint Powers Authority, for which Turner is the general contractor. Tran enjoys his relationship with Turner, and sees working with the company as an opportunity to show the value that small businesses bring to large-scale projects, especially when it comes to identifying alternative routes to a project's success that may be more environmentally sustainable and cost efficient.

"As a big contractor, [Turner] is used to doing things a certain way…but small businesses bring a different perspective…there may be a solution that we can help identify and help people move forward," Tran says. 

As Nilsson describes him, Tran is a shining example of the aspirations of The 100 Entrepreneurs Project. "He is a very quiet, but a very serious, contentious young man," Nilsson says. "If I were 20-25 years younger, there's no doubt I'd be working for HT Tran."

In describing his company’s success, Tran stresses the importance of building relationships, working hard to add value to a project and never seeing his company through the lens of being a service-disabled-veteran-owned business. "We’ve been successful because, when we go to present ourselves, we’re not a disabled veteran firm. I don’t tell people that until the end of the conversation," Tran says. "We have the [service-disabled-veteran-owned business] certification, but I want people to know that Anvil Builders is a strong company, we have core values, we’re willing to work hard and we want to move forward. I don’t want to sell myself or my company for being a disabled person."

Tran sees abundant opportunities for other diverse small business to succeed in construction, but emphasizes the importance of not approaching the work through a sense of entitlement. And as for his status as a disabled veteran, Tran chooses not to see it as a challenge. "Being disabled is a mentality—it’s the way that you think. If you think you’re disabled, then you’re kind of limiting yourself to what you can or can’t do. I’m always raising the bar so that I can reach higher. At some point I would like to touch the sky.”

 Fun Facts:
•  When not running his company, HT Tran enjoys spending time with his family, including his wife and 19-month-old son.
•  HT loves sports, fishing and spending time outdoors
•  HT believes his purpose for coming back after suffering his injuries was to serve as a resource for other veterans. “My passion is finding opportunities to help out veterans and veteran causes—organizations that are truly committed to helping the morale and welfare of veterans.

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