Ready for a new challenge after leaving the Marines, Ryan Erickson joined the ranks of veteran entrepreneurs in 2008 when he became majority owner of Erickson Builders and Co. in Rogers, the construction company his father had started 13 years earlier.

The younger Erickson has led the company through rapid expansion, with sales growing 832 percent over the past three years to reach $6 million last year, earning a place on the Inc. 5000 list of fast-growing companies.

“Being a Marine and doing that for four years gave me a lot of confidence in trying new areas,” Erickson said. “In the Marine Corps, adapt and overcome is the main approach when something happens.”

Erickson rapidly shifted the company’s focus from residential work as the housing market crumbled to government projects, primarily state-financed highway-related work for the Minnesota Department of Transportation and VA Medical Centers in Minneapolis and St. Cloud. Erickson has gone from doing a couple of MnDOT projects in 2009 to 38 last year.

While he has been one of the state’s more successful veteran small-business owners, their numbers are increasing through the efforts of fellow veterans, MnDOT and the Minnesota Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC), which helps firms get government contracts and navigate the verification process for state and federal preference programs.

Veterans in Minnesota have joined the ranks of small-business owners and entrepreneurs at a rate that exceeds those in most other states.

Minnesota had 119 verified veteran-owned small businesses at the end of March, according to Alan Duff, a veteran and entrepreneur who lives in Bradford, based on research he did on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ website.

The state’s total was more than double the number of verified veteran-owned small businesses in Wisconsin, which had 58, and almost as many as the 122 combined veteran-owned firms in Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska.

Minnesota, with its relatively low veteran population of 370,000, ranked fifth nationally, with slightly more than three veteran-owned companies for every 10,000 veterans living in the state, according to Duff’s calculations.

And the total continues to climb. As of last week, Minnesota had 134 veteran-owned small companies. According to Duff, 25 companies are going through the verification process. The growing number is largely the result of a yearlong outreach program to identify and verify veteran-owned businesses.

MnDOT initiated the outreach effort to inform veterans of its Veterans Business program, which offers verified veteran-owned small businesses with increased access to state contracting opportunities. Companies owned and operated by eligible verified veterans or verified veterans who also are certified as service-disabled receive a preference in state-financed highway construction projects.

“We’re probably one of the smallest states per capita for veteran presence, but we’re pretty much at the top” in the rate of verified veteran-owned small business owners, said Alex Tittle, deputy director of MnDOT’s Office of Civil Rights and a 10-year U.S. Army veteran. “The reason is we give a doggone about our veterans.’’

Duff, who served in the U.S. Army Reserves and operates a marketing consulting company that is among the state’s service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses, received a contract from MnDOT to lead the outreach effort. At the time it started, MnDOT’s database had only 29 veteran-owned small businesses that could do highway work; the total now is approaching 90.

One hope, Duff said, is that MnDOT’s Veteran Business program and similar preferences will help lower the unemployment rate among veterans. Almost 23 percent of Minnesota veterans who had served after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were unemployed, the country’s third-highest rate, according to a Star Tribune report in February 2012. “Veterans typically will hire veterans more frequently than nonveterans will,” Duff said.

One challenge veterans face is the paperwork-intensive verification process, which Duff said some have “referred to as a colonoscopy.” For help in readying their applications, dozens of veterans have turned to Mark Cooper, PTAC’s metro area manager. Cooper has spent much of his time offering classes, workshops and one-on-one assistance to veterans over the past three ears. His efforts earned him recognition from the SBA as Minnesota Veteran Small Business Champion of the Year last year.

“The veterans keep coming in month by month [for assistance],’’ Cooper said. “It’s really amazing, and it’s a pleasure to help the veterans.”


Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is