When The Boss Is Away

In war-torn IRAQ, the 56K Internet speed is SLOW and unreliable, the satellite phone service is sketchy at best, and the region’s volatility can wreak havoc on one’s “normal” day-to-day activities. In fact, on the day we interviewed Vergil Chames for this story, the conversation was nearly cut short by rocket fire in the city.

“If I’m on my phone and an overhead cloud disrupts the satellite connection, the person on the other end will miss entire chunks of conversation. I have to repeat myself over and over to get the point across,” says Chames, 37, joint headquarters transition team adviser for the Iraqi Ministry of Defense multinational transition command in Baghdad.

Still, Chames presses on — as a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army Reserves — and as the president and CEO of The Chames Group Inc., a retail cellular service, equipment, and accessories provider based in Montgomery, Alabama. In his dual role, he advises and mentors senior Iraqi leaders in the areas of personnel, recruiting, and finance while at the same time managing the 14-employee firm that he founded in 1999 with an $18,000 personal investment.

On track to bring in $2.5 million in sales this year — up from $1.7 million in 2005 — The Chames Group also provides network security, programming, and Web development services to its clients, such as Alabama State University and J.F. Ingram State Technical College, plus commercial and government entities. With one office and three retail locations, the company stands as one of the top 100 small cellular service providers in the Southeast, according to Chames.

Chames says he and his wife, Elayne, the firm’s vice president, were adequately prepared for the time when the reservist would be called up for active duty. “Since the conflict started, we knew I’d be called sooner or later, so we created a plan to compensate for my absence,” says Chames, who expects to remain in Iraq until June 2007. He began training his wife — who previously handled the administrative responsibilities — to handle the managerial duties, financials, and day-to-day tasks involved with running the company.

Called up for active duty in April, Chames splits his time between traveling the country, consulting with upper-level Iraqi officials, and sitting at his workstation receiving balance sheets from his accountant, poring over bids, and helping Elayne make key business decisions. “She sends me daily reports via e-mail and on Fridays we get on the phone and talk about what is going on,” says Chames. “It keeps me active and in touch with what’s going on with the business.”

None of it is easy. The time zone difference alone makes such collaboration next to impossible, with Iraq nine hours ahead of U.S. Central Time. “It’s midnight here when my staff is in the office,” says Chames, whose sleep patterns have been adversely impacted by conducting business during late hours. “This morning I traveled to Ramadi by helicopter, arrived back at 3:00 a.m. and had to forgo sleep in order to do this phone interview.”

Elayne says she spends her time leading