With an honorable discharge separating their past from their future, John Warren and John Thompson thought they were ready to take on the business world. They had already proved their worth in combat so the challenges of an office environment did not seem daunting.
But the business world was not ready for them. As they pursued different paths, the veterans were finding it difficult to land a job.
So the Marines found a different way. They became entrepreneurs, launching, growing and then selling their first enterprise. Now they’re on to the next.
Warren, a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry captain, was the cofounder and former CEO of Lima One Capital and currently the CEO and founder of GEM Mining, both Greenville-based companies.
Thompson, a former U.S. Marine Corps master sergeant, was the cofounder and former chief operating officer of Lima One Capital and currently the COO of GEM Mining.
They are both Iraq combat veterans who were decorated for valor.
Warren said no one wanted to hire him in 2008 in the business world as a political science undergraduate and former infantry officer.
“I started Lima out of necessity for a job,” he said. “I felt like these corporations didn’t appreciate the business skills I had acquired in combat, but we feel that’s what made us so successful.”
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As for Thompson, he said their stories are a little different.
Thompson spent 21 years in the U.S. Marine Corps and met Warren prior to their deployment to Iraq.
“We became close friends, and when he decided to start Lima, he asked me if I would be willing to join,” said Thompson. “I thought it was a great opportunity, and I had just retired from the military. So it was a good time in my life to shift from military government contracting into the finance sector.”
Warren said after running for governor in 2018, he sold the business for nine figures in 2019, and he and Thompson have enjoyed watching where the new owners are taking the business, including their recent announcement to establish headquarters at the new County Square complex in Greenville.
“We felt like we were really successful and built a large company, and we were looking to move on to other things and be successful in other arenas,” Thompson said. “The timing felt right, and we had reached our goals there and wanted to do other things. So, it was hard to pass up on (selling the company).”
Headquartered in Greenville, GEM Mining is a privately held, institutional-grade Bitcoin mining company that owns 32,000 miners and is 97% carbon neutral. GEM was founded by five partners, and collectively, have managed more than $3 billion in investments and have executed multiple profitable exits, he said.
From combat vets, to business owners, to authors
Warren and Thompson have recently co-authored a book published by Harper Collins called “Lead Like a Marine.” It was released on July 11.
In 2006, Warren and Thompson led Marines into combat in what many considered the world’s most dangerous city: Ramadi, Iraq. When the two decorated veterans applied the values and training of the U.S. Marine Corps to build a business, they defied expectations. That’s because they realized that, far from producing mindless drones, the Corps trains its warriors in adaptability, initiative and courage — ideal traits for anyone in leadership.
In “Lead Like a Marine,” Warren and Thompson lay out the simple, universal rules that helped them succeed, from valuing grit and potential over pedigree, to condensing large groups into resilient “fireteams,” to cross-training team members so that anyone can step up to the plate in a crisis.
“Both of our wives encouraged us to write down our stories for our kids after selling Lima,” Warren said. “We thought we had a unique story of two infantry guys who formed an amazing relationship in combat and started a company together to grow it.”
Once they reached their pinnacle and sold the company, said Thompson, they took a step back and asked themselves: How did we get here? What did we use from the Marines, etc.?
“The book is not just for entrepreneurs,” he said. “We think our nine key strategies of leadership are able to be implemented across the board no matter what you do to include your own family life.”
When you’re building a team, said Warren, you’re looking for individuals who share your core values versus just experience, so you can train them for experience but not for values.
“We learned the mindset of doing everything for a reason,” he said. “Some do things because that’s how the industry says it should be done, but oftentimes assumptions are wrong, and things can be done a lot better than what you’re used to doing.”
The traits of a successful person
One of the most important things they continue to do as leaders is to be “upfront and blunt” with people and not hold things back, said Thompson. That mentality goes for current employees, fellow executives, vendors — never delay any bad news when something happens, but instead, confront it with honesty and that leads to a good company culture, he added.
“A lot of our early-on employees at Lima were former military, because they share the same core values that we have and have the intangibles that we think is necessary to build a great company,” Thompson said. “It’s the simple things like motivation, the discipline that they have, wanting to be a part of the team and growing something great. At Lima, I could teach anyone to process a loan but can’t teach them to show up on time, to be motivated. The stuff you can’t buy off the shelf.”
When you look at the traits in a successful individual, said Warren, such as integrity, honesty, team player, hardworking, a chip on their shoulder with something to prove, you see the values found in a lot of veterans — the same values that make a good team member. “That’s why we look for these things when hiring,” he added.
“PTSD always comes up with veterans, but the vast majority do not suffer from it as most haven’t seen combat,” said Warren. “And the ones who have excel because of it, not despite it. It’s called traumatic growth. Veterans are not victims. We don’t hire out of pity. We hire them because they will help our profitability and company culture.”
Thompson said it’s important to take the intangibles they have learned in the military and apply them to all aspects of life.
“We think that’s the right way to go,” he said. “We never look at a veteran as a victim, but someone who holds intangibles that can help grow a company, and we think others in the business world should look at it that way was a well.”a