A former federal wildland firefighter, Mark Masters regularly rappelled 250 feet out of a helicopter into the most difficult-to-access, catastrophic fires nationwide.
Masters admits he was more than scared the first time he was about to jump off the skid.
“I was thinking ‘why in the world did I volunteer to do this?'” he said.
But then he lived for the adrenaline rush, and continued to work for several years as one of only 400 heli-rapellers in the U.S.
Today, there's only about 200. Masters is no longer one of them, but he continues to set himself apart in the industry.
The U.S. Small Business Administration on Thursday named him national young entrepreneur of the year.
Masters in September 2009 founded Chloeta Fire LLC, which is contracted to fight fires nationwide. The company has a fleet of six fire engines and bulldozers and employs 15 full-time workers and up to 60 additional contracted firefighters throughout the year. Annual revenues hit $1 million last year, Masters said.
From his offices in the business incubator at the Moore Norman Technology Center, Masters, 29, sat down with The Oklahoman on Thursday to talk about his professional and personal life. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Can you tell us about your roots?
A: I grew up in Jay, Okla., which is 80 miles east of Tulsa, with a brother who's three years younger. Our father is a self-employed electrician and our mother, works as a clerk at the Cherokee Nation health clinic there. The population of Jay is only 2,000, but it has the largest consolidated school district in the state. There were 90 in my graduating class. I played football, baseball and track, but basketball is what I enjoyed most. I was a guard.
Q: What made you aspire to fight fires?
A: My dad, grandfather and great-grandfather were volunteer firefighters, each with 20 years' service. An uncle volunteered 12 years, and my other grandfather — my maternal grandfather — served as a firefighter and tower lookout with Oklahoma's forestry services. He had friends who'd go out and work in the summertime fighting those fires you see on TV in Yellowstone and elsewhere, and come back and tell stories and show pictures. That sparked an interest.
Q: So when did you start as a firefighter?
A: At 18. Working as a seasonal federal firefighter — for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Oklahoma Forestry services — is how I paid for college. I skipped a lot of classes to fight fires. Over seven years, I had 15 different addresses. I started at $9.42 an hour in 2001 as a firefighter in Oregon and retired nine years later, as an administrative employee of the Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
Q: What made you start your own business?
A: My wife and I wanted to move back to Oklahoma, and there was no job here for me. I saw the opportunity in the industry for quality contracted help, and decided to take it. We started out with a pickup truck on a dirt floor of a barn in Jay, and I worked from my laptop in my kitchen here.
Q: What's behind your company's name?
A: Chloeta (pronounced Shu-Lay-Tuh) is Cherokee and the name of a community near Jay. The name gives me and our other employees the opportunity to proudly say we're from Oklahoma. My great-grandfather came here on the Trail of Tears, and had allotment land north of Jay. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has me at 3/32nd Cherokee, but I know I'm more. I'm also part Choctaw.
• Position: Chloeta Fire LLC, chief executive
• Birth date: Jan. 1, 1983
• Family: Paige, wife of five years and new counsel with Crowe & Dunlevy law firm. They met at Oklahoma State University, where he was a Beta Theta Pi and she, a Kappa Alpha Theta
• Education: OSU, bachelor's in ecology