From the Front Line to the Fast Lane

Going to war was never part of the plan for Chris Nolte. He didn’t dress up as a soldier when he was a kid growing up on Long Island. Nor did he pour over war movies wishing he could have the chance to become the protagonist in his own adventure. Back in 2000, when Chris joined the U.S. Army Reserves, he was a college student hoping to get a little assistance with his tuition fees in exchange for training one weekend a month. It seemed like a fair deal, at the time.

“The recruiter I met really wanted to sell me on the military,” Chris recalls. “He said, ‘The last war we were in was 1990. We’re not going to be in another war again.’ Fast forward one year and the September 11 attacks take place. A year after that I was overseas on my first tour of duty.”

In the space of a few months, Chris went from college student to army field truck driver in Iraq, swapping his dorm room for an army base in Kuwait as the U.S. prepared for the Iraq War.

“I was a little nervous about going to war,” Chris says. “When I signed up, I knew that this could happen, but I don’t think anyone ever feels really fully prepared for it. And if they do, they’re fooling themselves.”

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Chris served a full tour of duty in Iraq, before returning to the U.S. in 2003. He left the military for good in 2005. Like many former service-members, Chris found the transition to civilian life jarring. To go from the front line to waiting on line was a disorientating experience.

“For the first couple of months after I came back I was not very motivated to work. Life was difficult. I had injured my back while I was overseas, and I felt a little bit broken,” he says.

Finding employment is a major issue for many veterans who spend years removed from the civilian workforce and often experience difficulties transitioning upon returning from military service. Things can be even harder for New York-based veterans: The unemployment rates are consistently higher than the state average, especially among younger veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2011, the unemployment percentage for new veterans in New York was 16.7%; in the nation as a whole, it was 12.1%. These numbers equate to over 234,000 new veterans in New York looking for work after leaving the military.

Fortunately, Chris managed to get back on his feet after a family friend offered him a job in a luggage store. Soon he was managing the company’s website and, through his innovations and improvements, the business’ profits doubled. Chris had a knack for this type of work, it was obvious. The problem was that he just wasn’t passionate about luggage. He needed his eureka moment, something to inspire him.

“I knew I had to find some sort of product that interested me and that I could build a retail business around,” he says. “I came across electric bikes and they blew me away. As a disabled vet [Chris injured his back during his military service], I wasn’t getting much exercise. I ended up getting an electric bike for myself and I loved it.”

Chris initially started selling electric bikes online in a small second floor office in Suffolk County, Long Island. “I only had six or eight bikes initially,” Chris recalls. “Then I moved to a larger space with room for 20-25 bikes. Every year the business tripled in size.”

Chris’ business, recently re-branded as Propel, has continued to go from strength to strength. The success satisfied him, but there was something missing: Chris grew up working retail and food service jobs and he missed the bustle of the shop floor. He wanted to deal with customers face to face so he could share his passion for electric bikes.

“The online thing was great to get my start and I feel like the business does that well,” he says. “But I’ve always dreamt of having a home base. And it takes a lot money to do that.”

Access to capital was a problem for Chris. After relying on his credit card to see his business through the start-up phase, he lacked the impeccable credit rating required to be approved for a loan through traditional lending sources. That’s when Chris turned to Renaissance. Renaissance launched the Veteran Small Business Program to provide self-employment opportunities that will enable New York’s veterans to establish successful post-military careers. Chris was the program’s first client, and the loan he received will allow him to open the retail store he always wanted.

Chris Nolte with Renaissance Business Associate Fernando Aguilar (right)
Chris Nolte with Renaissance Business Associate Fernando Aguilar

“I now have the resources to do everything the way I want to do it, not just the way I can do it,” he says. “At the risk of sounding cheesy, Renaissance’s loan will allow me to achieve my dreams. I don’t have to do anything halfway now. I can go all the way and be the best, and that’s what I’ve wanted all along.”

Propel will open its doors this spring. To find out more about the company, click here.