Kaney O'Neill

Kaney O’Neill

U.S. Navy

Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

Kaney O’Neill personifies this unofficial military motto. The National Veteran-Owned Business Association, in partnership with JPMorgan Chase, is proud to announce Kaney O’Neill as the 2015 Woman Vetrepreneur of the Year®.

O’Neill, owner of ONeill Contractors, Inc., truly personifies what a successful woman vetrepreneur is all about. O’Neill suffered a terrible injury while serving in the Navy but instead of giving up, she refused to take no for an answer. Now, she’s a successful business owner and has set an ambitious goal to build on her success having landed contracts with Boeing, the U.S. Navy and the City of Seattle.

The Launch

The road has not been easy. After countless interviews, O’Neill really struggled to find a job. As a quadriplegic, O’Neill thought she knew why she wasn’t receiving job offers despite the fact that she had bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northwestern University – and despite the fact that she was a disabled female veteran.

“Of course, I didn’t know for sure, but I think when they saw the chair, they thought I couldn’t do the job,” she said.

O’Neill decided to take matters into her own hands and in 2007 started her own business. “I come from a family of roofers, so it made sense,” she said.

As a young woman, O’Neill, 37, decided to follow the footsteps of many others in her family and join the military. While serving in Newport News, Va. during Hurricane Floyd, O’Neill was severely injured. After months of rehabilitation and moving back home to Illinois, she pursued her education. That is when she hit the roadblocks. “I thought that if I had my own business, it wouldn’t matter if I was in a wheelchair,” O’Neill said.

Impressive Growth

Over the years, O’Neill has grown her business. Today she has 18 employees and works on major contracts with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and even worked on the Hines VA Hospital where she recuperated from her own injuries. To top it off, ONeill Contractors, Inc. recently landed a multi-year contact with the Navy.

“That was very exciting and meant a lot,” she said. One of O’Neill’s goals has nothing to do with her business – she wants to serve as an inspiration to other veterans, particularly her fellow female veterans.

“I want them to see if I can do it, they can do it,” O’Neill said. Vetrepreneur asked O’Neill to share her story about her military service and how that impacted her business…

Tell us a little more about your company:

ONeill Contractors, Inc. provides commercial roofing services to the government market and large commercial firms. As approved applicators for a variety of roofing manufacturers such as Tremco, Fibertite, Sika-Sarnafil, Firestone, Carlisle, and DuraLast, the O’Neill team has extensive knowledge of roofing products, product systems and their appropriate use. An environmentally conscious roofing contractor, O’Neill helps to educate their customers on the benefits of sustainable roofing solutions. When a roof is beyond the restoration point, O’Neill can install any of the major new roofing systems. Services include roof repairs, roof restorations, roof replacements, custom roof safety enhancements, and preventative maintenance services.
Who are your primary customers? Government agencies and large commercial customers.

How did you start your business?

With $1,000 of my own money, a $10,000 loan from my family and a $25,000 line of credit from my bank.

How did your military experience specifically prepare you to be a business owner?

Like many vets, I entered the Navy at a young age and was still growing into the person I wanted to become. I am who I am now in part because of my service in the military. I was surrounded by a great crew and I learned from them to put forth my best at whatever task was assigned to me, even if they were not exciting ones.

I also gained self-confidence, and you need a lot of that in business. The military also drilled into me the notion that you have to “Innovate, Adapt, and Overcome.” I’ve tried to stick to that advice and it has helped me immeasurably as a business owner. It also taught me to stay focused on the mission. I found out sometimes the hard way that things go right when you do and things go wrong when you don’t. So I keep my business goals in front of me. I keep my focus. Finally, I was exposed to a lot of great leaders in the Navy and I try to incorporate and model the things I learned from them into my own business style.

Does your military experience apply to your success in your business?

Absolutely. I would say that my upbringing planted the seeds of a good work ethic, but that trait was nurtured and solidified during my military service and of course, that’s an essential element to success in business. It wasn’t just that, though. I learned from the ground, or should I say “deck up” what it means to work as a team. In business, you can’t go it alone. Effectiveness in my business depends on being and surrounding myself with team players. Probably my most significant military “lesson learned,” so to speak, was the one thing drilled into me over and over from that first day at boot camp: Never give up. Never.

What were some of your concerns when you started your business?

As a disabled vet, I have the dual task of dealing with my own physical limitations and overcoming the preconceived notions that folks assign to those with disabilities. As a contractor I have to hit the sweet spot with bids. Repeatedly. It sure isn’t easy. Dealing with rejections and disappointments is part of business. Building my business knowledge was a concern and I’m always working at growing that knowledge.

What were some of the challenges in getting your business started?

Understanding the government marketplace, tapping into the right resources, finding out about available resources, making the time to take advantage of those resources. Obtaining financing and bonding, of course.

What is the key to the success of your business?

Determination and “stick-to-it-ness.”

What advice can you share with other veteran business owners?

There are so many resources out there. Find them. They are waiting out there for you. Sometimes the hardest part is identifying what you don’t know. Stand by your word. Encourage everyone on your team to become problem-solvers.

What pitfalls should they avoid?

Letting the day-to-day, very necessary activities prevent you from taking the time to think about your business, plan for your business, and create a strategic plan for yourself.

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