As the military turned to private contractors post 9/11, a host of young Florida firms -- many in top-secret work and high-tech fields -- has been growing and hiring fast. But the privatization pendulum swings both ways.
He has called Florida home since 1999 and, though he founded his consulting and IT business, Celestar, in 2001, he built it in earnest only after retiring in 2004. “I used our savings. I used credit cards. I used my daughter’s college fund,” he says.
Business took off only after the company established a good reputation.
He builds for the long haul. Debt-free, the company has been profitable since its second year.
Just about every employee at Gregory Celestan's Tampa company holds top-secret security clearance. On a typical day, employees report for work at a military base. Some comb through data, looking through a haystack of 20,000 phone records for the needle that will lead to a terrorist group. Others train an ally country's police in anti-terrorism. Some use brand-name intelligence software — there is such a thing — to analyze data for a report to military leaders. "It's really a lot of painstaking work," Celestan says. "It's really not as sexy as you see on TV."
5th - Florida’s rank among states in contract awards, after California, Virginia, Texas and Massachusetts
After 9/11, the military increasingly turned to private contractors such as Celestar to augment its forces quickly and provide specialized expertise in fields that the services lack or would find expensive to develop — many of the Florida companies provide highly specialized information technology services, for example. Contractors also free military personnel for missions and, unlike civil service employees and troops, can be let go quickly when no longer needed. The widespread use of contractors has made the Iraq and Afghan wars the most privatized in U.S. history. And it has spurred growth at Celestar and other firms in Florida that have emerged post 9/11 to flourish in the orbit of the state's military bases. Indeed, No. 3 nationally on Inc.'s fastest-growing company list is Merritt Island-based Luke & Associates, a 6-year-old firm that's grown to $100 million in revenue providing doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers at military bases worldwide.
The trend shows how far defense contracting has evolved from its traditional image of selling jet fighters or janitorial supplies to a local base. Some young Florida defense contractors do classified work. A Washington Post series this year counts Celestar among 67 Florida-based contractors working in the top-secret field. It found 218 contractors doing top-secret work for the three U.S. unified commands based in Florida (Central and Special Operations in Tampa and Southern in Doral).
The presence of the young companies also highlights the increasing importance of the military as a recession-proof prop to the Florida economy — what some see as a fourth leg for Florida's traditional three-legged economic stool of agriculture, real estate and tourism. Even as the state vies to lure tech and life science research outfits as job-creating clusters, no investment so far has the proven record of a military base. MacDill alone provides jobs for 13,000 military and civilian government workers and contractors. The base means $1.5 billion annually in payroll and local purchasing and indirect jobs, according to Lt. Col. Brian Kehl, 6th Comptroller Squadron commander.