Montana Beauty Institute

Small business owners PJ Barr and Gracia Barr pose for a portrait at the Montana Beauty Institute in Billings on Friday.

When PJ Barr returned from serving for the Montana Army National Guard in Iraq in 2005, he didn’t know what to do next.

He was married, had a family, and wanted to find out who he was outside of his service.

He was stationed at FOB McHenry in northern Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and assisted in logistical work and construction. He served 14 years in the National Guard.

Two of his sons now actively serve in the Montana Air Force and National Guard.

“It came to a point where my goal and my life was changing and I just decided that that was enough for me,” Barr said. “I appreciate it, and I encourage anybody to go into the Guard. I miss it, but at the same time, I think the choices I made were better for my life and my marriage.”

An opportunity came up in 2016, and he and his wife, Gracia Barr, bought the Montana Beauty Institute, or what was previously known as the Nail Institute when it opened in 2010. Gracia Barr has been an esthetician for 17 years.

In 2018, they introduced a nail technician course and an esthetician course. They plan to move to a bigger facility at 40 27th St. W. in 2020 and start a full-fledged cosmetology school. PJ Barr works as a mechanic alongside being a co-owner to the business.

The business was ranked number four on the Top 10 Trade Schools in Montana for 2019, according to Vocational Training HQ website.

“The opportunity arose and everything just kind of fell into place,” PJ Barr said. “I’ve always wanted to be a business owner, and hopefully I’ll have more of a role here. Right now, I still work to help make ends meet.”

They instruct about 25 to 30 students every year, and also provide free pedicures to disabled veterans who are referred from the Billings VA Clinic. Gracia Barr said she wants to make the process easy.

“We just thought, ‘Why not cut out the middleman and we’ll just give it for free?’” Gracia Barr said. “We want to take care of fellow veterans.”

Veterans Business Outreach Center director, Dustin Frost said that many veterans own businesses in the Billings area.

The Veterans Business Outreach Center, or VBOC, provides entrepreneurial development services like business training, counseling and business partner referrals through Big Sky Economic Development.

Veterans make up over 10 percent of Montana’s population. However, there are obstacles that they face when starting a business.

“If you’ve been serving 15 or 20 years in the military and you move every two and then you want to start a business in the community you go into, you don’t know a banker or an insurance agent or a lawyer,” Frost said.

Frost said he’s helped the Barr’s with their business development as well. Red Oxx Manufacturing Inc., the Sassy Biscuit and others are owned by veteran families.

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The first week of November was National Veterans Small Business Week.

Those who serve for many years have a hard time accessing capital than the general population. Veterans often have a low credit score or may not have one at all, since many have not purchased a home, taken out a loan or have had opportunities to build credit, Frost said.

VBOC helps people connect to banks or lenders that understand their unique circumstances. Frost encourages veterans to visit VBOC for guidance.

“The people who serve in the military are interested in putting service above self and making sacrifices and even understand things like taking risk,” Frost said. “Those qualities that make them successful in the military are the same kinds of things that make them successful as small business owners.”

Military training helps teach those who serve to take challenges head-on, PJ Barr said. Gracia Barr has incorporated some of what her husband has learned during his service in her curriculum.

Students are expected to make mistakes, Gracia Barr said, and since acronyms are widely used in the military, she’s turned “FAIL” into “First Attempt In Learning.” She encourages her students to learn from mistakes and move on.

“You just get up, dust off and move on,” PJ Barr said. “The other option is to just give up, and that doesn’t get you anywhere.”

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