By Susan Robertson
Photos by Jasmin Hampton
“When we went into his room, all he did was stare.” That was the observation the then-13-year-old Russell Toone made when his parents took him to visit his Army lieutenant cousin at the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in Memphis. His cousin, who served in Vietnam, was thrown from his helicopter after it was destroyed coming in for landing; he was paralyzed from the neck down.
“This fellow played ball with us kids at family reunions previously, and I remembered him fondly,” says Toone, who is now a Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) consultant with the UT Center for Industrial Services (CIS).
As a PTAC consultant, Toone is one of four CIS employees who work with businesses across the state, many of them veteran-owned, to help guide them through the government contracting process.
“I will never forget the price paid serving his country. That is what drives me to assist veterans, many with lifelong injuries, in some small way,” Toone says.
Clayton Poff, who owns Energy Cost Reducers in Memphis, first met Toone is 2008.
“When I met with the Tennessee Small Business Development Center, the first thing they said was to call Russell Toone,” says Poff, a former member of the U.S. Marine Corps. “I’ll never forget our first call. He (Toone) asked if I was near a computer, he gave me the website, told me to find the PTAC link on the left side and to click start here. He took me to the paperwork and told me, once I was finished, to give him a call back.”
After Poff finished the paperwork, he again called Toone, who suggested the two meet. After reviewing the paperwork, Poff remembers exactly what Toone said to him.
“He said, ‘Now that you’re set up, you have to go find contracts,’” Poff says. Since then he has won his share of contracts—more than $1 million in government contracts.
“I filled out the paperwork for my first contract. I knew I could do it, but I was nervous,” he says. “I tripled the project cost because of all of the unknowns. It was for Little Rock (Arkansas) Air Force Base. She called and asked if this was my final bid. When I told her yes, she said, ‘It’s sizably larger than the other bids.’ I told her it’s because of the quality of my work. A week later she called to tell me I got the contract because I filled out the paperwork correctly.”
Michael Cherry, who co-owns Taylor-Cherry Enterprises in Memphis, also has benefitted from PTAC and Toone.
“When we started the business, we were just looking at all of the opportunities out there and saw this program offered by the state,” Cherry says. “It looked like a good program that offered a lot of training and education programs. Through that training, I met Russell, and with his help I was able to get certified as a veteran-owned business, and he was able to help with my minority certification as well.”
Taylor-Cherry Enterprises started almost three years ago and, since receiving its certifications, has won a number of government contracts, including working with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“We bid on several government projects, and I had Russell look over the paperwork. He helped us dot all of the i’s and cross all the t’s,” Cherry says. “This is a much-needed service that has been a big help to us.”
Poff echoes Cherry’s sentiments when it comes to the PTAC program in Tennessee.
“PTAC is a lake of resources, they offer so much assistance,” Poff says.
Toone served in the U.S. Coast Guard, which is a point of respect for his veteran-owned business customers.
“There is that veteran bond,” Poff says. “I’ve been around the country and have run into other veterans who said their PTAC counselors weren’t as helpful. The intent of his heart is to make his customers, those who aren’t afraid to do the work, be successful.”
Toone humbly accepts the kind words of customers, and he’s pleased when they find success, but he views the work he does as a service.
“I served in the U.S. Coast Guard during the Vietnam era but did not see fighting, although we darn near drowned several times and had many tense moments preventing drug smuggling in Florida,” Toone says. “I was proud to serve then and think that I continue my service doing what I do, as does the entire UT PTAC team.”