Culture
Workforce
J. Adam Oglesbee

Strong Roots

Warfeather has built an outsized reputation for a small Oklahoma company, combining its founder’s military-based focus on mission and his Choctaw values.
By Christie Chapman
May 2, 2023
Topics
Culture
Workforce

J. Adam Oglesbee did not imagine, while “growing up poor and Choctaw in southeastern Oklahoma,” that he would one day be the award-winning founder of a company seen as a national leader for its services. Warfeather, the construction company Oglesbee started with one employee (himself) at the onset of the Great Recession, has grown to more than 20 employees with a headquarters in Coweta, Oklahoma, and multimillion-dollar projects in locales as far away as Hawaii. And Oglesbee was recently named Oklahoma Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

His path involved taking on meaningful work, relying on lessons learned while serving in the U.S. Army and grappling with cultural ideas that could seem at odds with conventional business mores—including the question of whether to seek success in the first place.

ANY WAY THE WIND BLOWS

Oglesbee was born in Ada, Oklahoma, and raised in Ada and Miami—the one in Oklahoma. No stranger to hard work, at age 10 he spent nights delivering the Ada Evening News while his peers enjoyed extracurricular activities. He mowed lawns and helped his uncles with various construction tasks, such as hand-digging trenches for structural-foundation repair and floor bracing.

In 1996, he enlisted in the U.S. Army as an infantryman and served for the next decade; he found himself in Bosnia as part of a stabilization mission, in the Sinai Desert with a peacekeeping force and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. After a stint working in the Washington, D.C., area, he decided there was no place like home and moved back to Oklahoma.

Construction appealed to Oglesbee on a number of levels. With his military background, he appreciated the logistical aspects of working on a project, as well as the service component, finding purpose in each job. He felt confident that he could put together the right team for a project, and as a former soldier, he was no stranger to getting things done.

Oglesbee was working as an estimator for a construction company when the Great Recession began to send shockwaves throughout the U.S. workforce and beyond. “I could see which way the wind was blowing,” he says. He started Warfeather—in its original, one-person incarnation—in 2008 as a “placeholder.” His intuition was correct; he was laid off from his day job in 2010 and switched focus to become a federal contractor, striking out on his own.

It felt like a huge risk at the time. “I had $14,000 in my 401(k),” Oglesbee says, “and I took it out—all of it.”

SERVICE ORIENTED

Then came a period of adjustment, figuring out how to translate skills Oglesbee had used in the Army into ones that would work back home and in business. A clear carryover was leadership—no empty buzzword when trying to motivate your charges, some of them teenagers, to put their lives on the line for a cause. “When you’ve got a bunch of 18- or 19-year-old kids, they need a mission,” Oglesbee says.

At the same time, Oglesbee experienced what he calls a “paradigm shift” in how he viewed running his business versus the way things were done in the military. “In the Army, the objective always came first,” he says. “Now, it’s the safety of our workers that comes first, and the objective is after that, always.”

In the beginning, Oglesbee focused solely on projects at Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities. This work had meaning for him as a service-disabled veteran (SDV): “Some of the surgery suites we did work on were ones where I’d had surgery. In my 10 years of service, I suffered multiple knee and back injuries as well as emotional trauma that is ever-present with our service members. I gravitated toward working at these facilities because I could identity with every man and woman receiving care there.”

The company started out locally, but gradually word got around. Warfeather has since installed anti-ligature alarm systems at 47 different VA hospitals, including one in Hawaii, an expansion Oglesbee says was “organically achieved” thanks to his team’s dedication and reputation for a job well done. He says: “It’s pretty surprising for a little company from Coweta, Oklahoma, to be a player on the national stage.”

Reflecting on Warfeather’s growth, Oglesbee cites what he calls his “aha moment,” when he first realized the potential of what his company could do. It was May 2015, and Oglesbee was hard at work outside a VA hospital in Muskogee, Oklahoma. “I was just finishing installing a curb around the water tower when there was this landslide behind the hospital,” Oglesbee says. “This guy grabs me and says, ‘Are you an SDV-owned business?’ I said yes, and he walked me down to look at what needed to be done. That was our first $1-million project.”

For the resulting emergency hillside-slump mitigation project, the company worked with tree-service subcontractors and the utility company to restore power to the hospital while removing earthen debris to slow the hillside’s movement. To stabilize the potential disaster, Warfeather removed 600 truckloads of debris, excavated unstable material, installed bracing and used concrete for erosion control. They also installed a 700-foot water-diversion structure to prevent further erosion. Oglesbee’s team was given 60 days to complete the project; they finished in 42.

Another memorable project for Oglesbee is much smaller in scale: constructing the monument base and installing a prefabricated Minuteman statue in front of the headquarters building of the Oklahoma Air National Guard’s 138th Fighter Wing in Tulsa. Warfeather completed the project on a sped-up timeline to coincide with the retirement and change-of-command ceremonies for the 138th’s commanding officer. The endeavor held special meaning for Oglesbee as a veteran whose connection to his military experience extends to his company’s motto: “Still Serving the Mission.” Warfeather’s mission includes taking care of those who have served—last year, the company received a Platinum HIRE Vets Medallion Award from the U.S. Department of Labor, which honors organizations that seek to recruit, employ and retain veterans.

BORN TO THE BUSINESS

Looking ahead, the price tag on the company’s next big project—at the Veterans Affairs Law Enforcement Training Center in North Little Rock, Arkansas—neatly illustrates the exponential boom Warfeather has seen in scope since its early days. “Our first project was $17,000,” Oglesbee says, “and this one is $17 million.”

Joni Hummel, Warfeather’s federal programs director, has known Oglesbee from the beginning, even before those low-five-figures budgets. “I met Adam in 2004,” she says. “I was working for Oakridge Builders, a division of Flintco at the time, and Adam came on board as an intern fresh out of college. Adam and I sat and worked together, and I taught him everything I knew about project management and the way we handled things at Oakridge. He was young, eager and capable.”

After learning so much about the business from Hummel, Oglesbee was happy to repay the favor years later. “In 2019, I started working for a contractor that closed their doors in February 2020,” Hummel says. “Adam found out that I was in need of a job and reached out to me that same day, a Thursday.” Hummel started working for Warfeather the following Monday.

“Adam was born for this business,” Hummel says. “He has truly built Warfeather from the ground up. He learned everything he needed to learn about federal contracting and just went for it. He’s very good about surrounding himself with those that share his same vision for growth and success.”

THE CHOCTAW CONNECTION

And yet the concept of success is fraught for Oglesbee. He’s a proud member of the Choctaw Nation, and that part of his identity is deeply woven into his vision for Warfeather as well as his hopes for others from a similar background who might not have dared to dream of starting their own business. The Choctaw Nation’s Tribal Service Area (TSA) in southeastern Oklahoma, which includes 10 “extremely rural” counties, was designated a “Promise Zone” in 2014 by former President Barack Obama—one of five areas in the United States targeted for economic-improvement programs. According to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report, 32% of children in the TSA live in poverty, nearly 10% higher than the national rate and 8.4% higher than the state’s average.

“Growing up poor and Choctaw, with all the generational poverty, you don’t really think about things like building your own business,” Oglesbee says. “You put others’ needs before your own, and you feel like you’re supposed to be reserved—it’s bred into the culture.” That can give people like him a “complicated” view of whether to even strive to succeed in business.

“I had the pleasure of speaking with Chief Gary Batton,” Oglesbee says, referring to the current leader of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. “He was able to help me see that you can be both Choctaw and successful, that these aren’t contradictory things. Historically, the Choctaw have been one of the most progressive tribes, quick to adopt new methods and open to education. You can translate that into the business world. When you think about it, having a high-performing company is one of the most Choctaw things you could do.”

A WAY OF LIFE

But success can be defined in many different ways. It’s clear to those who know Oglesbee that he values people over profits. “Warfeather is 100% a family,” Hummel says. “We work hard together and have fun together and support one another on a daily basis. The culture Adam has cultivated for this company is truly inclusive, and that says everything about his values and his ethics.”

Oglesbee’s background, both Choctaw and Army, has influenced his view of business conventions. Hummel says: “We just had our annual company ‘retreat.’ Adam decided the next yearly meeting will not be called a ‘retreat’ but an ‘advance,’ because as a company we will never retreat, but continually advance our mission and our purpose.”

Away from work, Oglesbee still enjoys the pleasures of his Choctaw childhood, such as hunting for morel mushrooms and crappie fishing, appreciating “the bounty of the forest,” he says. His out-of-office hours are filled with high-octane adventures with his family: wife Amy and children Ethan, 15, and Erin, 13. “I’ve been scuba diving for 25 years—last Christmas, after 17 years of begging, my wife decided to get certified, so she can join us,” Oglesbee says. He likes to hunt goose and waterfowl, and is getting into competitive softball. He’s also working on his pilot’s license.

Oglesbee also stays close to his roots through volunteer work with Folds of Honor, which provides scholarships to spouses and children of fallen and disabled service members, and Fostering Hope, an Oklahoma organization that supports children placed in foster care. Hummel sums up her multifaceted mentee, colleague and friend: “You will not find a finer man who is a patriot, boss, friend, husband, father and CEO.”

by Christie Chapman

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