Unfortunately for Bart Combs, the stories about why he’s so good at his job are the stories he can’t discuss.
Combs, owner of SOLKOA, Inc. and its newest line, SOLKOA Survival Systems, said some specifics of what he’s done and whom he’s done it for are best left in the shadows.
“There are many things that can’t be shared with the public,” Combs, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, infantry officer and aviator, said of his various government contracts. “While marketing, I have to be the quiet professional, which is a terrible marketing plan.”
Combs worked in special operations in the Army and graduated from its Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training before becoming an instructor. He had the opportunity to work with the likes of former Green Beret James “Nick” Rowe, who spent five years in a Vietnamese POW camp, and Louis Zamperini, who was taken captive during World War II and is the inspiration for the story that became the movie “Unbroken.” Those interactions led Combs to decide he wanted to continue the important and life-preserving work he’d done in the Army once a civilian.
“Those people are truly larger than life,” he said. “I tried to imbue their qualities into others who have the toughest jobs and are being asked to go to the most dangerous places around the world.”
Components to kits
Combs started the largest SERE school in the Army, one specifically for Army aviators, within a year of retirement, he said. The Army had SERE curriculum for Special Forces, but that’s where the specialized training ended.
“[Army aviators are] more apt to need it, whether because of a precautionary landing, or because they’re shot down. [Helicopters] don’t glide very far,” he said. “They land in close proximity to adversaries and have to have their stuff dialed in. Special Forces were being trained, but not these guys.”
While on active duty, Combs earned his MBA and, upon retirement, used his business and military training to start SOLKOA. For much of its existence, the company solely instructed government clients in customized SERE-related curriculum. Contracts he can discuss include work with most branches within the military, the Department of Justice and even the Department of Energy.
“Today, the reality is there are many more people at risk than just those in the military,” he said.
SOLKOA added to its training the manufacturing of survival equipment — components, modules and kits. Beginning last year, the company launched a civilian product line called SOLKOA Survival Systems, or S3.
Combs said his next step is to extend educational and training components to civilians, including multinational organizations, missionaries and humanitarian aid workers, and offer open enrollment to outdoor enthusiasts for less-comprehensive training.
Regarding manufacturing, Combs said his civilian and military survival kits are made to the same specifications, but the civilian kit may be missing a few pieces.
“I didn’t [manufacture] the government stuff in the U.S. to make it compliant and for the commercial line go overseas to source items for cheaper,” he said. “You need this stuff to work. It’s nonnegotiable … The S3 line doesn’t include things specific to military and law enforcement, however — the high-level evasion and escape.”
While some businesses supply the gamut of training and gear to just about anybody who can pay for it, Combs said he’s careful about his business contracts.
“It’s not all for sale because we don’t know who we may be providing equipment and capabilities to. To make this a skill for everyone makes it a skill for no one.”
‘Resetting the bar’
“S3 uses eight survival needs as the building blocks for all of its products,” the company’s marketing material states. Those needs include signal, navigation, fire, shelter, medical, tools, water and food. Kit components address these needs and can be customized to include some or all of the required tools, to include shelter building equipment, fire starting, first aid and hydration capabilities.
“To make this a skill for everyone makes it a skill for no one.”
– Bart Combs
“But just because you give someone a hammer, does that make them a carpenter?” Combs said, adding specialized training rounds out SOLKOA’s client capabilities. “You’re not going to be a Mountain Man Jack. These are practical emergency skills — avoiding those emergencies, being able to handle the unforeseen night out and being able to not only endure but help effect your own recovery … You’ll have the skill set to handle things Murphy throws your way.”
Speaking of Murphy, Combs said he didn’t feel the effects of the Great Recession in 2008. His financial crisis came in 2013, following sequestration.
“We’d been so narrowly focused on one client [the Department of Defense], and [the cash flow] just turned off,” he said.
Combs said his company had been generating seven figures by its second year, but sequestration made him realize he needed to diversify.
“What we provide is not a military thing -— we provide a human thing,” he said. “There were some big defense contractors who were caught flatfooted, but the good thing about what we do is that we’re not just a military thing.”
Combs said launching S3 was “like starting his business over again.”
He’s had to learn new skills, not necessary when dealing with the government. For instance, the world of government contracts didn’t involve branding, packaging, marketing and distribution, aspects Combs is in the process of refining.
Celebrating 10 years, SOLKOA is itself a survival story, proving the adaptability that Combs teaches clients has applications outside the wilderness.
“For a small business starting up, be very careful trying to be all things to all people,” Combs said. “That’s true for military guys especially. We have a lot of experience and a tendency to say we can do everything. Pick something you’re really good at and, more importantly, have a passion for.
“We were a multi-million dollar business, sophisticated in operating internationally. We picked a niche and we’re absolutely the best at it. Now we’re resetting the bar of excellence for ourselves.”
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