MBA students help turn around flagging VFW post

They proposed a plan for boosting numbers and raising funds.

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Cressie Steketee Thomas presents information to members of VFW Post 10049 regarding opportunities for future growth.

Photo: Andy Holzman/Southern California News Group

(SIMI VALLEY, Calif. - Feb. 17, 2017) They had braved death on far-off battlefields, but now faced dwindling numbers at their Veterans of Foreign Wars post at home. And then there’s the whopping repair bill and potential loss of one of Southern California’s best military museums.

Enter six MBA students from Cal Lutheran University who came up with a plan to save VFW Post 10049 and its VFW Military Museum in Simi Valley.

“They’re trying to give the VFW a big shot of Geritol,” said Wayne Wright, commander of the VFW post, a Vietnam combat veteran who flew Huey helicopters for the U.S. Army. “We need assistance. Our post has suffered the ravages of age. Our World War II and Korean vets are passing at a very fast rate. … So we’re elated to see the Cal Lutheran students extend a helping hand.”

The business grads last week unveiled a comprehensive plan to revive the nearly 50-year-old nonprofit service club by retaining members, boosting numbers and raising funds while marching to a 21st century drumbeat on social media.

If successful, the 86-page business plan could help save the veteran’s post and mall museum through a new arsenal of financial, marketing and community outreach tools.

It could also provide a model for other declining veterans clubs across the region.

“Our whole business model is essentially gently pushing you towards rebranding, through social media and doing outreach partnering with other companies, and with people’s kids’ baseball teams” said Cressie Steketee Thomas, 27, among the half dozen MBA students from the California Lutheran University School of Management to spotlight the VFW for their senior class project. “And doing different events, that you don’t necessarily do, like a golf tournament, or maybe do a surfing tournament to appeal to that younger population.” 

She and the MBA grads outlined their strategy to a handful of aging vets inside the Simi Valley Town Center military museum. They were flanked by hundreds of military posters and artifacts from local veterans, including one that proclaimed “1778-1943: Americans will always fight for liberty.”

For decades, VFW Post 10049 at 4242 E. Los Angeles Ave. had served as a watering hole and war story haven for homecoming veterans.

But like other older veterans groups across the nation, it’s had trouble drawing a new generation of defenders. The post is down to roughly 240 vets, of whom 65 percent fought in wars before 1990, of which only a few dozen remain active. 

In addition, the VFW post launched during the Vietnam War in 1969 now requires $50,000 to fix its roof, pave its parking lot and repair its aging interior. Moreover, the fate of its popular military museum is now in doubt at the open-air mall.

The MBA grads called for a new GoFundMe campaign and a charity golf tournament around Veterans Day. As a last resort, they suggested leasing out the VFW post and paying rent for a newly combined post and museum.

The first real-world makeover performed by a newly revamped MBA program at the Thousand Oaks university included the efforts of mostly foreign students. Among the class were Steketee Thomas; Jantana Promsawad, Apinop Haruhun and Krittaphat Panthong of Thailand; Maitha Bubshait of Saudi Arabia; and Yu Zhang of China.

“I’m really happy to do it, to help Americans,” said Promsawad, 27. “Because in my country I love to volunteer my time.”

Change is also underfoot at VFW posts across the nation, whose membership has dropped from a reported 2.1 million members nearly a quarter-century ago to 1.2 million last year. To draw new blood, some have volunteered to help other veterans. Or organize mud runs. Or open craft beer festivals.

VFW Post 1 in Denver, the nation’s first, even tossed out its century-old bar in favor of yoga classes and a veterans’ art gallery.

One Navy recruiter who wandered into the proceeding said the VFW should rebrand itself because many service members don’t identify as being veterans of a foreign war. 

“I spent all my 17 years underwater, in a submarine, but never fought,” said Petty Officer First-class Jim Snyder, whose office is in Simi Valley. “And a lot of veterans might feel the same way.”

But Wright, a retired warrant officer whose father flew 65 bomber missions over Europe, was confidant about an about-face of fortune.

“We’re open to suggestions,” the VFW commander said. “My wife teaches yoga. We could get a little Zen. Some tai chi. The fellas would all fall in line.”

--- Published in the Los Angeles Daily News on Feb. 17, 2017

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