Lance DeSpain wants to solve the kinds of problems that keep military generals up at night – problems like how to outfit Toyota Tundras for combat without making them stand out in foreign cities.
And he aims to find solutions to these problems that benefit North Carolina businesses.
A former Marine and investment banker, DeSpain heads the N.C. Military Foundation, which works largely behind the scenes to link North Carolina companies with military contracts, often by creating products that solve sticky problems. One example is a recent partnership that enlists the NASCAR industry to customize SUVs for U.S. Special Forces.
He also helps fuel growth in more traditional ways, such as the recent announcement of a new fleet of aerial tankers to be based at Seymour Johnston Air Force Base starting in 2019 and the addition of six Joint Strike Fighter squadrons to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.
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In the past year, the foundation started an initiative devoted to helping veterans find jobs, not at traditional job fairs, but by working directly with employers to match available jobs with the skills gleaned from military service, from soft skills such as good work habits to technical training in areas such as cybersecurity.
The military is second only to agriculture in its economic impact on North Carolina, and DeSpain works closely with state and federal government officials, as well as leaders in the military and business worlds, helping to make valuable connections with the end of increasing that impact.
Yet the work of the foundation remains largely unseen. DeSpain says his group, which has only two employees but counts several high-ranking military retirees on its board, seeks to make deals, not take credit.
“It’s a properly hidden gem,” says DeSpain. “It punches above its weight.”
Cornell Wilson, head of the recently created N.C. Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, has worked closely with DeSpain both to tailor efforts to keep and expand the state’s military bases and to otherwise expand the military presence – and the federal dollars that come with it – in the state.
Wilson says having an independent group working alongside government efforts has been a valuable asset, helping to cut through the hierarchies of the military and the political battles within government to broker deals and provide unfiltered information on military priorities.
“[DeSpain] has been outstanding in really working with organizations and businesses to help them understand what the military wants and needs in a way that is a benefit to the state as a whole,” says Wilson, a retired major general who has advised Gov. Pat McCrory on military affairs for several years. “I’ve come to rely on him for his knowledge and expertise, and his unvarnished opinions. They give it to you straight, no chaser.”
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DeSpain grew up in Lafayette, La., the oldest of six siblings in a family with deep roots in Cajun culture. He was the first in his family to earn a college degree, thanks to an ROTC scholarship to the University of Rochester, where he studied English and psychology.
He was also editor of the university’s arts and literature review, and planned to return to school to earn his Ph.D. in literature once he had completed his service. He was sent to Camp Lejeune, where he rose to the role of comptroller. He liked the job, which entailed managing a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, and decided on business school.
He wound up at Yale University’s business school. After graduating, he worked on Wall Street and as an investment banker with the Hartford Group for several years. He was looking for similar jobs in North Carolina when several people told him about the opening at the N.C. Military Foundation, noting that his unusual background in the worlds of the military and business would be particularly useful.
Often, his job is one of translation, helping military leaders explain their needs in terms that are easily understood by policymakers and the business community.
“My experience turned out to be a good marriage,” he says. “I’m able to speak to and understand the protocols of both.”
The foundation was started in 2006, in response to the threat of losing some of the state’s military bases. DeSpain says it is the only one of its kind to remain a private entity; it is funded by its volunteer board, made up of companies eager to see growth in defense contracts statewide.
The board also includes several retired three- and four-star generals, who both understand military issues and help make connections with high-ranking officials. Often, DeSpain says, discussions with current military brass require discretion.
“If they need something, that means there’s a weakness, and they can’t go out in a public forum and talk about that,” he says.
While North Carolina businesses may not be able to compete with powerhouses like Lockheed Martin for military contracts, the foundation works extensively with Special Forces in every branch of the military, helping to fulfill niche areas of need with tailored solutions in a state with a wealth of research centers and innovative companies.
In helping to broker a deal between the motorsports industry and special operations forces, the problem was that the Humvees being used by deployed troops were too easily detected.
“NASCAR folks are really good at turning a Toyota Camry into a racing machine,” says DeSpain. “Now they can take a Toyota Tundra and give it the James Bond treatment.”
The foundation has helped the UNC system land more than 25 military projects. Many of them deal with language training for Special Forces troops, but others include training in agriculture or government.
The foundation also advises elected officials, helping to keep continuity in military matters even as the political winds change. DeSpain has worked with both Republican and Democratic governors and congressmen to promote the state’s interest at the national level.
He also works closely with the state commerce department to lure large companies using financial incentives. In October, he led a group of state lawmakers, military leaders and others to a defense industry conference in Washington, D.C., holding meetings he hopes will yield future deals.
The foundation’s work with veterans stemmed from the concerns of military leaders about the large number of veterans that are transitioning out of combat roles. In North Carolina 27,000 veterans made that transition last year.
Much of the help available for veterans focuses on areas such as financial counseling and medical issues. But the foundation took a different tack by starting conversations with employers about the skills these veterans bring. The information technology, energy and manufacturing sectors have provided a wealth of jobs; more than half of the veterans who attend those job fairs find jobs.
“We want people to think of the billions of dollars in training they’ve had and how we can take advantage of that in the private sector,” says DeSpain. “We have a ready-made workforce here.”
Lance M. DeSpain
Born: May 1973, Lafayette, La.
Career: Executive director, N.C. Military Foundation
Awards: Navy Commendation Medal for outstanding leadership and innovative business practices
Education: B.A. English and psychology, University of Rochester; MBA, Yale University
Notable: DeSpain is a world traveler, a Cajun cook and also plays guitar.