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Washington Post: This Real Estate Firm is Looking for Veterans Who Can Keep Their Cool Under Pressure

May 26, 2012

Tom Bozzuto is the 65-year-old chairman of the Bozzuto Group, the Greenbelt-based real estate company that employs 1,200 people, many of them veterans.

Bozzuto, a Vietnam veteran, hires fellow service veterans for two reasons: first, they make great employees; second, he has an idea of what they have gone through and wants to help. But Bozzuto, whose company owns or manages tens of thousands of apartments between Boston and Virginia, didn’t call me looking for publicity. I found him.

I am humbled when in the presence of veterans, especially those men and women who have experienced combat and horrors that the rest of us cannot imagine. At 56 and having never served, I have a pretty good idea how easy I’ve had it.

Bozzuto is the son of a factory worker and was drafted into the Army in 1968 while in graduate school at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

While he wasn’t a front-line soldier, Bozzuto called his years as a combat correspondent in Vietnam “an out-of-body experience. Really strange.” His brother, who flew F-4 Phantom fighter jets for the Air Force died of cancer, which Bozzuto said was brought on by exposure to the Agent Orange, the herbicide used in Vietnam to defoliate jungle cover.

Foremost in his memory are the two months he spent in basic training, where he learned that he wasn’t all that special, and he’d better show up on time and get along with people, qualities he finds particularly valuable.

“Those nine weeks of basic training still stand out in my mind as some of the toughest weeks of my life,” he said. “You spend four or five hours crawling on your stomach because some [officer] has gotten angry at you, it teaches you discipline. And so much of what we see is people needing the discipline of showing up [to work] on time.”

I love this stuff. After nearly 30 years, I find myself still learning these lessons.

When Bozzuto was discharged, the first thing he did was take off his uniform. Those post-Vietnam days, “when we were all considered baby killers and were made to feel embarrassed,” gnaw at him. So Bozzuto and his business partner, John Slidell, who also saw combat in Vietnam, feel that “anything we can do to create opportunities to use the skills of these fellows getting out of the service, and give them opportunities, is something we want to do.”

Bozzuto is no evangelist. His priority is to find good employees. So he hired Kristen Reese in January 2011 to fill the no-nonsense title of “director of talent acquisition.” Her mission is to address the growing demand for reliable employees.

As Reese sifted through the labor market, she eventually had an epiphany: go after veterans.

In short order, the company started an initiative to hire more veterans and their spouses.

“We’re not looking for a pat on the back,” Reese said. “This is a great demographic for us. We can train people on the technical skills they need, but we can’t train somebody to have high integrity or to smile and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ ”

Veterans also are a good match for Bozzuto’s blue-collar workforce of maintenance engineers and lobby concierges: People who must learn to interact with apartment residents on a daily basis without losing their cool.

Reese said she hires everyone from hot-shot officers to unsung grunts who can fix anything. Of the 171 employees Bozzuto has hired since January, seven percent — or 12 new employees — are veterans.

Take the Army veteran whose mission was to use air defense missiles to shoot down low-flying enemy aircraft. His job with Bozzuto is as a maintenance technician in one of the company’s older apartment buildings, which requires more frequent attention to repairs.

“It’s one of the more demanding communities,” Reese said. “But if he can shoot down enemy aircraft, he is probably well-equipped to handle upset residents.”

The new hires aren’t just men. Bozzuto Construction’s head of business development is an Annapolis graduate who commanded a team that hunted enemy submarines.

“She is aggressive, bright and persistent,” Bozzuto said. “Is she the way she is because she went to the Naval Academy? I don’t know. All I can tell you is you can see in her focus on getting the job done that she has had military training.”

Then there’s the other Annapolis graduate who was planning missions for Navy SEAL teams and now is going to be hunting for choice land where Bozzuto can build its next project.

“He analyzed data in the military and made decisions, and we’re looking for him to analyze potential deals.”

Reese recently hired a former Navy rescue swimmer to oversee apartment construction. He received commendations for his efforts fishing bodies and rescuing survivors out of the western Pacific.

“In the interview, it came across there was nothing you could throw at this kid that he hadn’t overcome in terms of obstacles,” Reese said. “You look at a tsunami situation, you are pulling bodies out of the water. To go back and do that day after day, I could tell this guy to do anything, and it’s nothing he hasn’t seen already.”

Then she recalled that during her interview with the rescue swimmer, he said he was drawn to Bozzuto because it was owned by veterans.

“It meant a lot to him,” Reese recalled. “He said that a veteran would know what he had been through.”