The reasons people pursue serving in the United States military are as diverse as the people who serve, and even within the military, one person’s experiences may vary pretty dramatically from the next. Different people, different branches, and different occupational specialties makes each person’s service unique, but for everyone that laces up their boots for Old Glory there is one inescapable certainty: eventually, we’ll have to take them off for the last time.
The transition from active duty to becoming a veteran can be a daunting one. As grand and diverse as the experiences we gain in the service can be, the world beyond it seems to loom even larger, as the potential to do anything comes tempered with the fear of not knowing what of that anything to do. The old adage, “the sky’s the limit” truly fits for many veterans as they trade in their uniforms for business suits or coveralls, and for a few, like former Navy SEAL Jeff Bramstedt, it fits quite appropriately.
Jeff owns and operates Skydive San Diego, a full service skydiving facility in Jamul, California, just outside of San Diego. His passion for skydiving was born in the service. As a SEAL, Jeff served on the U.S. Navy’s parachute demonstration team, the Leap Frogs, and executed thousands of jumps as a demonstrator and throughout this thirteen years in special operations. When it came time for Jeff to hang up his uniform, he was approached by Skydive San Diego’s previous owner about taking over the business.
What followed was seven arduous years of learning the ins and outs of designing a business plan, securing financing, and expanding on the skills required to take over a company like Skydive San Diego. Jeff devoted himself to becoming the business owner he knew he’d need to be, until he finally found himself in the position to take over not only the original company, but its sister business too: Tactical Air Operations. Like Sky Dive San Diego, Tactical Air Operations uses their sprawling southern California complex to teach and execute skydiving jumps, but unlike the tandem trip you might take with your girlfriend, they focus solely on military air operations parachute proficiency and tactical training.
“I had some great mentors along the way, but a lot of it came down to trial and error,” Jeff explained. “If I was a quitter, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
Being a Navy SEAL is an incredible accomplishment that few people can claim, but in a lot of ways, so is running a successful business based around your passions. I don’t have any experience building a company of the size or scope Jeff has, so I decided to reach out to another successful SEAL-turned business owner to gain some perspective: Hurricane Group CEO and SOFREP founder, Brandon Webb. It came as no surprise to me that these two warriors and entrepreneurs knew one another.
Jeff runs an incredible company, and sets the standard on how to operate a safe and professional skydive operation.” Brandon told me. He had been a customer before Jeff took over, and can see the difference he’s made. “I was glad to hear that he took ownership, and excited to see another veteran transition successfully.”
I asked Jeff how his background in the military helped make him successful in the strategically different realm of the private sector.
The Navy taught me discipline. This business comes with lots of work and lots of hours. I try to be here before my first guys clock in, and I’m still here long after they all clock out,” he told me. “We have around a hundred employees and contractors out here. I have an amazing team, I couldn’t do without one of them. But when things get difficult as it will and does with anything, there has to be the one calling the shots. I am comfortable with that kind of pressure”
Jeff’s business recently expanded and added a new desert training facility, dubbed Area 33. It includes climate controlled classrooms, berthing areas, office spaces, a runway, multiple drop zones, and a 2.68 mile race track, among other amenities used for military and civilian training. With that kind of success, one might think Jeff would be eager to claim credit for his efforts, but that just isn’t him.
“I’m a team builder. I surround myself with people that are smarter than me,” Jeff told me. “That’s important because this is a team sport. I can take my hands off the wheel and trust the team to keep things running smoothly.”
Jeff listed a number of employees, from the person that runs the front office, to his Chief Pilot, to his business partner, and explained how each of them and countless others bring their own types of brilliance to bear for the sake of the business. It seems clear that Jeff’s team is second to none, but he’s still not willing to take the credit for their success.
“It’s important that I’m secure in what I do because it allows me to surround myself with people that are better than I am.”
Jeff’s ability to put in the work, and to prize the success of the team over his own ego could be thought of as leftovers from his days on SEAL teams, where things like work ethic and selflessness are a part of the lifestyle and culture prized by America’s elite warfighters. With that in mind, I asked him what advice he would offer a young service member looking to leave the uniform behind and follow in his footsteps.
First, you have to get your priorities in order,” Jeff paused to emphasize the importance of his statement, “Military families are under the pressures of deployments and military actions. But when that is no longer the case don’t let the lack of proper prioritization have the same ‘cause and affect’ action that the military deployment can have on the family. If things aren’t good at home with my wife, they won’t be good anywhere.”
Despite all the hours Jeff has spent learning the ins and outs of accounting, aviation, politics, and the myriad of other skill sets required of his role as the head of both Sky Dive San Diego and Tactical Air Operations, Jeff makes it sound simple.
“Make sure you’re doing your job as a man before you worry about doing your job as a business owner,” he explained.
Jeff’s sense of family isn’t limited to his wife and children, either. For Jeff, the line between employee and family member is a blurry one, and he likes it that way.
With some of my younger employees, sometimes I don’t lead, I parent them. If they have a problem, it doesn’t matter if I’m working on financing for another aircraft or what I’m doing. I stop, put my phone on silent and stick it in my pocket, and I sit down to deal with it. Sometimes those meetings can last for a few hours, but we see it through. I’m here to demonstrate a standard.”
Although Jeff could go on about how much he values his employees, he actually isn’t looking to hang on to them. As far as he’s concerned, he wants to play a role in grooming each of the young people in his business to grow into their own business owners one day.
What makes a company strong isn’t just its asset list or liquid funds. Our greatest asset are the people working here, that are inside making the wheels turn. The best advice I could give anyone is just to be who you’re supposed to be for who you’re supposed to be it for, then just watch how your business grows.”
I asked Jeff, after a thirteen-year career in one of the most elite special operations organizations on the planet, and then growing his business into the success that it has become, what has been the most rewarding part of the ride so far. It didn’t even take him a second to answer.
“I have an amazing family – what could be more rewarding than that?”