Greg Celestan: A seasoned veteran, savvy businessman and seriously fun guy
Greg Celestan’s biography might be a tad intimidating, at first glance. A New Yorker, a graduate of West Point and a retired Army veteran leading U.S. and foreign military personnel.
After a quick meeting with him, it’s evident that, while his resume is impressive, the man before you is a humble guy with a great love for his family, and employees, and a terrific sense of humor.
What’s more interesting is what his resume doesn’t tell you. He’s a loyal fan of the Buffalo Bills, appreciates a good bourbon and is a big trivia buff.
None of these personal details is he shy, or apologetic, about. He’s served his country and built a company from scratch.
Celestan is quite self-aware and it shows.
Celestar Corp., in Tampa, is a global government contracting agency that provides intelligence services, operational support, training and advisory services. It serves customers in more than 12 countries, including areas that are designated as “high-threat.”
The company had $18 million in revenue, in 2020, and Celestan projects it could be $30 million in 2021 as the company is hyper-focused on securing large government contracts this year.
While completely open about his business, its growth and its numbers, he more so lights up when he talks about the people, his passions and the joys of his personal life.
A NEW YORK STATE OF MIND
Celestan was born in Niagara Falls, New York in 1962.
His parents were originally from New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1955, Celestan’s parents moved to Niagara Falls so his father could work in one of the factories there.
“There were very few jobs for African American men in New Orleans, Louisiana then,” Celestan says. “He moved up to Niagara Falls to work in the factories. Then he sent home for his high school sweetheart, my mom. It was the first time she ever left home, at the age of 22. She took a train up to Niagara Falls and they got married.”
Celestan’s parents wanted to stay in Niagara Falls because they didn’t want their children to grow up in the segregated south. His mother also got a job, in one of the factories, and the young family bought a house to raise their children in.
With two parents working shifts in the factories, Celestan, and his sister, learned early on about pulling their own weight in the home.
“They instilled that work ethic in me. It was how I grew up,” Celestan says. “We washed our own clothes and fixed our own meals. We were latchkey kids…they instilled in us the importance of education.”
His parents wanted more for their kids than the grueling work of factories.
Celestan says he loved growing up in Niagara Falls.
“Literally, we lived five minutes from the border. There were times during the day that my parents were at work and I was in another country,” he says laughing.
Celestan describes it as a great place to grow up. A small, blue-collar town. All his friend’s parents worked in factories too.
“But my goal in life was to get the hell out of Niagara Falls, New York,” he says. “And at 18 that’s what I did.”
“I wanted to go into the military. I was always fascinated by it,” he says. “I saw it as a way for me to pay for college and see the world.”
He didn’t know if he would get into West Point when he applied.
“I was going to go into the military, one way or the other,” Celestan says. “That was my ticket out.”
“West Point is what opened my eyes to the world because, for the first time, I was around people who had various backgrounds, some of their parents came from money and had traveled around the world,” Celestan says.
While at West Point, Celestan majored in science and engineering but also studied Russian. It was the middle of the Cold War.
After graduating, and joining the United States Army, his first job was in field artillery. He describes this as, “the big guns.”
He was stationed in Germany for five years, on the border. At this time, they allowed Celestan to pick a second specialty, he chose to be a Russian specialist.
“The program was great because the Army will pay for you to go to language school for a year and they pay for your graduate degree so I was like, ‘I’m in,’” he says.
Celestan then went on to earn his graduate degree in international affairs at the University of Washington.
When he completed his graduate program, he traveled back overseas to the former Soviet Union and worked in different embassies where he began a path to intelligence work.
“It was fascinating because the first place I ended up was Minsk, Belarus. We would be followed to the embassy by the KBG. The big joke at the embassy was when I told them, ‘If they lose me in this town, they’re idiots because I’m like the only black guy,’” he says laughing. “I would meet the Russian officers and they’d be like, ‘Oh you’re an American.’ And I’m like, ‘What tipped you off, my accent?”
A COVID WEDDING
When asked if there were any top-secret intelligence stories, or secrets, he could talk about his wife, Samara Sodos, chimes in with a laugh, “He can’t tell you.”
Celestan and Sodos married during the year of COVID, in a small ceremony at their home, in Tampa Heights.
The couple had big plans for a larger gathering, with friends and family, but like many others had to alter those plans to accommodate COVID safety protocols.
“We had a big wedding planned at Armature Works. We were making the wedding list and started thinking of all the people we knew and we said, ‘This is going to be tough,’” Celestan recalls.
Sodos is a former Emmy-award-winning journalist, who previously was director of public relations for Port Tampa Bay and currently is founder and CEO of Sycamore PR.
Between the two of them, the wedding guest list was sure to be long by anyone’s standards and impossible during a global pandemic. They also had to cancel their planned honeymoon in Italy.
“It was tough. It was disappointing,” Celestan says. “We finally reached the point, and Sam really carried the load on this, we decided to just do a small reception at the house. Even our family couldn’t come.”
They say they have no regrets. Given the chance to postpone, or change, they’re happy they made it work.
“We saw what was going on, while watching TV, and I looked at Greg and I said, ‘Are we going to do this?’” Sam remembers. “And he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ We can have a party any time. We just wanted to get married.”
Instead of Italy, they spent their honeymoon working from home together and adding a new member to the family, a bulldog puppy named Hazel.
What a 2020 thing to do.
After 20 years of service, Celestan retired from the U.S. Army in 2004. He decided to make Tampa his permanent home after spending his final five years stationed at U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base.
He knew he wanted his own business so he started taking classes at the Small Business Development Center at the University of South Florida.
When he first established Celestar Corporation, he was employee number one. Slowly he started to bring on additional people.
“I was two years into the business and I realized I knew so little about the business community [in Tampa],” Celestan says. “I joined the Tampa Chamber of Commerce and I started meeting people. I was fascinated by them, just learning how they ran their businesses and how they did things…I learned that the Tampa business community is like a Venn diagram.”
After a few years of being involved with the Chamber, Celestan was invited to join the CEO Council.
“This is how people get to know each other in Tampa, through these various civic organizations or groups. That’s really where a lot of the friendships come from,” Celestan says. “I give a lot of credit to the Chamber of Commerce because that’s how I really met a lot of people.”
Transitioning from military, to civilian, life is often a struggle. It’s moving away from a life of clear and direct objectives being laid out, to charting a path without that same guidance.
“I’ve heard Greg speak a lot to groups and they always ask about his military experience and I really think that the most impressive part of Greg’s journey to being where he is today was the transition from military to his own business because he studied so diligently. He read, he was a student of business,” Sam says. “I think when we make those moves in life, and start a new career, that part has always been the most courageous to me.”
Celestan confirms his own struggles and his fear.
“You come into the business world and it’s not laid out for you. You feel like you’re walking without a net, on a tightrope, and it’s very scary,” he says. “I was terrified in the beginning, meeting payroll or realizing that the money coming in wasn’t coming in fast enough to meet the payroll.”
Celestan persevered but it wasn’t without hard work and determination. In Celestar Corp.’s first year in business it did $50,000 in revenue. He wasn’t taking a paycheck yet, instead using revenue to hire more people. In year two, Celestar had revenue of $250,000. By year three he was able to move into office space and the company consistently continued to grow year after year.
“My favorite joke is that being an entrepreneur means that every night I sleep like a baby…curled up in the fetal position and crying myself to sleep,” he says with a laugh.
In 2020, he wasn’t alone with crying in a fetal position as the global pandemic started closing borders and moving people out of the office and into their homes.
“We really had a hint of how bad it was getting out there because we had to bring everyone back [from overseas] and start teleworking,” Celestan recalls of March 2020. “That’s probably not a good sign.”
Other than working from home, Celestar didn’t really miss a beat as its business operations continued and even thrived.
“We won so much work. We’re in this growth spurt, right now, for the company,” he says.
The hardest part has been the culture aspect. “In the last year we’ve probably hired another 60 employees and I haven’t met them in person, that’s hard and not how we typically operate” he says.
HEALTH & HEART
Celestan has been involved in the Tampa General Hospital Foundation for nearly 11 years. He’s currently the chair of the foundation.
“Before, we were doing a lot of galas and fundraisers that’s how we were raising money for the hospital. I was deeply devoted to it because I loved their mission and what it does for our community,” Celestan says. “A lot of things have changed in the last couple of years. They hired John Couris, as the CEO of the hospital, and his vision for the hospital really energized us.”
When Celestan came on board, the plan was to fulfill a massive capital campaign, and raise more money than ever raised before, for the foundation, Celestan says.
The foundation hired a chief development officer, Frann Richards, and expanded its staff…and then COVID happened.
“We quickly shifted focus,” he says. “We shifted the master capital campaign, pushed it off for a year, and we shifted our fundraising efforts to COVID-19.”
At Tampa General Hospital there is now a global infectious diseases hospital. They took the old rehabilitation center building and reconfigured it for COVID-19 patients with negative pressure rooms. The foundation raised more than $6 million, in less than four months, to create this new facility.
“I give all the credit to the team. Frann Richards, and the team, they did this,” he says.
When he’s not growing his company, or sharing his time and treasure for his passion at TGH, Celestan loves to enjoy the little things in life.
He loves to cook, appreciates a good bourbon, trivia games and enjoying a relaxing bubble bath.
His biography might intimidate you, but the man surely will not.
He’s a father to a daughter – and an adorable puppy that’s an absolute ham, a husband and a big softy, behind the accolades and accomplishments. And he seems pretty happy about all of it. ♦
GREG CELESTAN’S FAVORITE THINGS
• Favorite places to eat out: Mise en Place, Ocean Prime, Yoko’s Japanese Restaurant, Donatello’s Italian Restaurant
• Favorite Bourbon: Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve
• Favorite “guilty pleasure” show: 90 Day Fiancé
• Trivia you won’t beat him at: World War II history
• Favorite thing to cook: Pasta
• Favorite place to visit: London
• Favorite sports team: Buffalo Bills
Photos by Michael McCoy