When then-Air Force Sgt. Jeff Wharton was deployed across the globe in southwest Asia, he began laying the groundwork for life after 12 years in the military. Wanting to eventually start a small business, he dreamed up the name and applied for a trademark.
In August, after his return to Nebraska, Wharton's idea came to life when he and his father, Max Wharton, also a military veteran, opened First Aid Cellular, a cellphone repair shop. The shop at Westwood Plaza near 120th Street and West Center Road also repairs tablets and laptop computers.
“I've worked with computers since I was 13, and I've never bought one off the shelf,” said the Glenvil, Neb., native. “I'm pretty patient with that stuff. That's really what it takes: a lot of patience and a keen attention to detail, and I got that in the military.”
Wharton enlisted in the Air Force at age 22 in 2000, just a year before 9/11. He ended up with an avionic systems assignment working on F-15 fighter jets.
Along the way, he learned about flight controls, radio communications and electronic warfare. He earned several certifications and training opportunities, including a bachelor of science degree in professional aeronautics and two associates degrees.
Six years and a shoulder surgery later, he transferred to a military intelligence position and later into military interrogation, jobs that deployed him to Afghanistan and sent him on assignment to southwest Asia. When he retired this year, Wharton was eager to have the opportunity to launch the business he'd always wanted.
But even with an eye for technology and the drive to start a new venture, he faced challenges similar to other returning military veterans. While adjusting to day-to-day differences that civilian life presents, it also took time learning to be his own boss.
“In the military, you have leadership from the top all the way down,” he said, “but when you run your own business, you are the top.”
For help, he got in touch with the Small Business Administration and attended a seminar to get ideas on how to secure financing to open a storefront.
He presented his business before a Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Tips Group, where he got the attention of a small business specialist at US Bank. The relationship turned into a $15,000 loan approval under the SBA's Patriot Express program, which provides loans to veterans looking to start or expand small businesses.
This year, 14 loans equaling more than $700,000 were approved for Nebraska veterans, said Michael Foutch, a business development specialist with the SBA's Nebraska District Office in Omaha.
While the loan helped Wharton open First Aid Cellular's storefront, social media played a role in building clientele. Wharton offered, through a member deal site, an offer to replace shattered Apple product screens for half price.
“My phone rang 119 times that day it launched,” he said, laughing. The offers helped make strong revenue in the first month, but he is regularly thinking of ways he can grow his business without sacrificing part of the profit.
He reports more than $25,000 in revenue in less than three months in business.
And in that time, he's seen it all.
There was the customer who left his device on the roof of a car, only to pull out of the driveway and get to work before realizing it. And there was the family whose day at a pumpkin patch ended with Dad running over the family iPod.
Wharton has even revived a phone that took a five-story plunge off a building and one submerged in cement.
He'll sometimes spend hours tinkering with a device, getting pieces of glass in his fingers and getting frustrated, but he aims for a 24-hour turnaround on repairs.
He says his business isn't out to take customers away from cellphone companies. Instead, First Aid Cellular helps customers who don't carry insurance on their phones and can't afford to buy a new one if theirs stops working. Those people, who may otherwise return to using an older phone, can turn to Wharton for a cheap fix that, on average, costs about $100.
While each day offers a new hurdle, Wharton said it's similar to his military days.
When a problem with a device stumps him, he thinks back to fixing F-15 fighter jets, which work the same as most electronics: They can't function properly unless every piece and part goes back inside.
Or, he turns to Google because chances are “somebody has had that same problem.”
“Just like the military, as long as you know where to find an answer, you're good to do the job,” he said.
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