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A Force for Business: Service leavers and small business

Setting up and running your own business requires courage, determination and a strong work ethic. These are attributes which service leavers have in spades, and why self-employment is a route well worth considering.

There are almost a million Armed Forces veterans of working age living in households In Great Britain.

For those seeking employment, small businesses can often be better than bigger ones at spotting and nurturing talent, rather than discarding a service leaver’s job application because some of their skills and qualifications aren’t necessarily from a traditional academic route.

But there is room for greater support and advice to service leavers on the options of self-employment or finding work within an existing smaller business, and there should be more of a focus on the key skills needed to succeed in enterprise.

At the same time, employers would benefit from a simplified way of understanding and recognising the equivalence between military skills and civilian qualifications. For those service leavers in need of further training and qualifications to achieve their post-military ambitions, there should be more financial support available. And for smaller employers there should be a financial incentive to recruit service leavers, in the form of a one-year holiday from Employer National Insurance Contributions.

These, plus a host of other recommendations, along with some fascinating insights, can be read in the report A Force for Business: Service Leavers and Small Business.

"Setting up and running your own business requires courage, determination and a strong work ethic"

FSB Chairman, Mike Cherry

"Military service; the education, the knowledge and the experiences this provides individuals, is a wonderful foundation on which they can build their own career in self-employment or business ownership"

Ren Kapur, CEO of X-Forces Enterprise and FSB's Armed Forces Champion



Veterans of working age

Veterans are estimated to make up five per cent of household residents aged 16+ in England and Scotland, and six percent of household residents aged 16+ in Wales.


Small Business owners

This suggests there are currently approximately 340,000 small enterprises across Great Britain run by veterans


Sector distribution

More than one in 10 (12%) smaller firms have employed a service leaver in the last three years. This equates to almost 166,000 small firms across Great Britain.


Veteran employment

Micro-businesses are the category of business which most often employ veterans. Among smaller businesses the proportion taking on service leavers in the last three years is noticeably lower. In medium-sized firms in particular, the proportion is less than a quarter of those in the ‘10 or less employees’ category.


Veteran run

Nearly 80 per cent of service leaver-led businesses have employees. The proportion of veteran-run businesses with at least one employee is much higher than among the business owning population as-a-whole.


Benefits to your business

‘I employ three ex-service personnel and they have a tremendous work ethic. They have a resilient attitude which rubs off on other people in the team... they’re quite exceptional’.
Business owner, management consultancy business, South Wales

A Force for Business: Service leavers and small business

Upon leaving the armed forces, service leavers need new opportunities in the civilian economy that will bring them fulfillment and enable them to make a living for themselves and their families. Our latest report highlights a number of significant barriers that stand in the way of these desirable ends, and presents a clear set of recommendations for Government and others to help service leavers overcome these obstacles and succeed in the ways they find best suited to them.

Download the report

Small Business Stories

Read the fascinating stories from some of FSB’s members who have previously served in the Armed Forces.

From Flight Lieutenant to Highland Campervans

Co-ordinating search and rescue missions at RAF Kinloss stood former flight Lieutenant Catherine Bunn in good stead, when she decided to set up her own business.

"I think the skills I developed in the military have certainly helped Highland Campervans," she says.

"Being resilient, self-motivated, organised and disciplined have all been important skills, not only to help me set up Highland Campervans but also to see it grow and develop."

Catherine loved her time in the RAF, which included a spell in the Falklands scheduling helicopters that moved the military and freight around the islands and organising search and rescue cover.

But her plans changed when she met her husband Stephen and it was while sitting in a cold tent on the Isle of Skye, having missed out on an ice climb with him because she suspected she was pregnant, that her future business idea began to form.

"I decided that there was no way I was sheltering in a tent with a baby in tow but I wasn’t being left at home and missing adventures, so a campervan was the solution," says Catherine.

"Then Steve had the idea that I could rent them out as there were no small campervans available for hire locally at that time and it was a business I could run from home with a baby in tow. The business grew from there."

Highland Campervans, based in Inverness, was established in 2007, shortly after Catherine left the RAF.

"I think the biggest change was feeling that you were out there running a business alone," she says.

"In the military, you really are part of the forces family and there is a great camaraderie between people, with advice and support available for almost anything. Running a business, you have to be really self-motivated and organised to balance out time and resources.

"I joined FSB early on in my business and it was one of the best business decisions I’ve made."

Highland Campervans began with a small hire fleet which has grown into the Highlands' specialist centre for motorhomes and campervans. Directors Catherine and Stephen have 16 staff, several of whom are ex-forces.

"I've always been quite confident and was often given leadership roles in the military and I think my team would certainly say I lead by example," says Catherine.

"I try to spend time out and about in the different business areas, seeing what support I can give to the staff, to help everyone be the best they can be.

"I have very high standards for the business and we’ve won lots of awards over the years which I’m very proud of."

She advises others in a similar position to work through a business plan first, to offer something unique and to consider whether they have the skills to run a business alone or whether partnering up with someone might be a better option. 

"Finally, be careful of using TLA’s (Three Letter Acronyms) – the military world is full of them but in the civilian world they tend to be spelt out!," she adds.

FSB member Catherine Bunn, Director, Highland Campervans

From Captain to beekeeper

Former Army Captain John Geden turned to beekeeping to help him relax after he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - and has since grown it into a successful business.

John spent nearly 10 years in the Army, including serving as a captain with the Royal Military Police. He then spent 22 years as a detective, investigating serious crimes like homicide and child abuse.

In 2014 he retired from the police with a diagnosis of complex PTSD - something he traces back to the horrific scenes and dangers he was exposed to in both his military and police careers.

Beekeeping, which had long been a hobby, became his "mindfulness" activity and his daughter suggested he turn it into a business.

"I was struggling to motivate myself and my depression was not letting me see clearly. I knew I didn’t want to work for another large organisation again and I also set myself some personal 'red lines', including not to have to wear a suit and tie to work!," says John.

"I began to slowly work out how to grow the business, what level of capital expenditure I would need and broadly how I could make an income from this."

His business, Sinah Common Honey, sells honey and equipment, supplies wedding favours, trains amateur beekeepers and breeds bees and queen bees.

"I grew the company quite slowly and now in the fifth year we are beginning to show a profit. I will never make my millions from bees and honey but it has never been about that for me," says John.

"I did find that common sense and sound judgement, the skills that were injected into me over my 32-year joint army and police career, would stand me in good stead."

"If I can prepare a case file for court, I can write a fully evidenced business plan. If I can write an operation order for a major military event, I can likewise come up with a structured way ahead for the business."

He sought support from X-Forces Enterprise, a social enterprise which helps veterans set up their own businesses, taking part in their business masterclass programme, seeking guidance when needed and making use of their networking opportunities.

"My military career taught me the benefits and necessity of team working, but as a sole trader you have to look wider to find that team," he says.

"Without XFE I would not have become a member of FSB and I would not have had the ability or knowledge to upscale my business, nor to be able to recognise when I may be going wrong."

"The process reminded me of a phrase that was drummed into me at Sandhurst by my Colour Sergeant: 'Time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted'."

While talking yourself up may not come naturally, John advises other ex-military entrepreneurs: "Don’t be afraid to champion your past service and include it in your literature and marketing material.

"I have found that the public find it slightly humorous that a trained soldier and detective is now managing several million insects and sells honey at their local farmers market."

FSB member John Geden, Sinah Common Honey, Hayling Island, Hampshire

From Afghanistan to Afghan rug business

James Wilthew of The Afghan Rug Shop, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

Flight Lieutenant Wilthew was serving with the UK's Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan's Northern Provinces in 2003/4 when the seeds of his business idea were sown.

Mazar-e-Sharif is part of the old Silk Road that is renowned for its handmade Afghan rugs. James and his colleagues would gather, drinking tea and chatting in the rug shops close to their main base, during the few hours of downtime they got each week.

Rafi, the owner, sold him some rugs which he posted back to the UK, some to keep, some to sell to help pay for his wedding.

After eight years and five operational tours with the RAF, James Wilthew left the services in 2007 and, after a short spell in London working as a civil servant, he and his wife relocated to Hebden Bridge, in the Upper Calder Valley in West Yorkshire.

In 2014, a friend spotted one of James's Afghan rugs and asked if he could get him one from the same seller.

James adds: "Having done a full-time military career I didn't think about starting a business then. But having worked part time, it gave me time to think and start some research."

He managed to track down Rafi via Facebook and an interpreter in Afghanistan.

"We ended up Facetiming at a specific time and date and he said: 'Let's do business.'"

Several months were spent figuring out import tax, how to get payment to Rafi and other issues.

"But before I knew it, I was looking for premises and the shop was open," says James.

The Afghan Rug Shop, which prides itself on being a Living Wage employer and fair trade approved, celebrates its fourth birthday in Hebden Bridge this year. (2019)

There have been challenges. Months after it opened in August 2015, the Calder Valley was hit by the Boxing Day floods and Hebden Bridge was left waist-deep in water.

"We just had to dust ourselves off and get on with it and get the shop open again. Being ex-military, you learn to have a plan and you are always prepared for the worst-case scenario," says James.

"I see a lot of people blinded to potential threats to their business. As long as you are prepared, you can deal with most things."

The business has also had to cope with the all-time low in the dollar exchange rate as Brexit uncertainty continues [at the time of publication] - which means profits are down. But thanks to some careful planning, there is still money in the business to pay staff and keep the shop running.

James says his military training has also reinforced the importance of stepping back. He says it's important to delegate to others, so you can watch from afar and think more strategically, to better steer the business.

"I think we have planned for a lot more things than other businesses might have done. That's the military mindset," says James.

“It is great to know that there is support out there, from organisations like the Federation of Small Businesses and X-Forces Enterprise.”

And while The Afghan Rug Shop is proving popular with tourists and locals alike, he has not abandoned the military entirely - he's recently rejoined as a Reservist.

FSB member James Wilthrew, The Afghan Rug Shop, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

From soldier to telecoms start-up

It was a selfie with a penguin, snapped while on service in the Falklands with the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, that kick-started former soldier PJ Farr's telecoms business.

During some down time on a remote island in the South Atlantic, PJ started taking some photographs of the local wildlife to send home.

"I got some photos of some penguins and I got one of myself with a penguin and decided to email that photo back to my father in law in the UK," he says.

His father-in-law, a housing developer, was immediately impressed by the Army's ability to reliably communicate, even from remote areas.

"Being a developer, he would struggle to get effective, secure communications into a construction site," says PJ.

"And that was where the idea was born really, we realised there was a solution available and a clear commercial opportunity for us to sell to."

PJ left the Army and set up his business, initially named Countrywide Telecoms, in January 2013, with the aim of becoming the leading provider of communication services to the UK construction industry.

"When I first left the army to start my own business, obviously I had to convince my wife it was a good idea," says PJ.

The couple had just over £1,000 saved up and PJ had to quickly get to grips with the nitty gritty of setting up his own business such as learning about VAT returns, corporation tax and corporate structure.

"I only had military experience to lean back on to. A lot of ex-forces guys are very entrepreneurial anyway, they maybe don't realise it," says PJ.

"There's a term used often which is: Improvise, adapt and overcome. We use that daily in the forces to try to overcome adversity. And actually, running a business is very similar to working in the Army. You need a clear set of goals, you need to be clear on your plan. You need to rehearse your plan, practise it, and then go out and do it."

Countrywide Telecoms grew to become a leading supplier of communications solutions and works with some of the largest UK house-builders, providing more than 1,000 construction sites across the UK with a super-fast broadband service. It was rebranded as UK Connect in 2018, to recognise its growth and won the Business of the Year - Scale Up category at this year's (2019) Soldiering On Awards.

PJ has some advice for other service men and women thinking of setting up their own business when they leave the forces.

He says: "Firstly go and reach out to the network, reach out for help and look who's out there already, actively supporting ex-military and military people.

"Some of those companies are people like the Federation of Small Businesses and X-Forces Enterprise, and there are other social enterprises out there as well whose job it is to try and help you succeed in business."

FSB member PJ Farr, managing director, UK Connect, Surrey

From Flight Lieutenant to craft gin distiller

Debbie Strang of Shetland Distillery Co., Shetland, Scotland

Former RAF Flight Lieutenant Debbie Strang put the "can do" military attitude to good use after leaving the forces, transforming a former RAF base into the UK's most northerly resort and running an award-winning distillery. The company won the Scale-Up Business of the Year award at the FSB Celebrating Small Business Awards 2019

Joining the RAF as a supply and logistics officer in 1986, she was posted to RAF Henlow and RAF Lossiemouth during her time in the forces, leaving when she became pregnant.

She and her husband Frank settled in the Highland town of Grantown-on-Spey. Twelve years ago they set up a company with the aim of reusing redundant Ministry of Defence properties.

They transformed the former RAF Saxa Vord site on Unst, the most northernly inhabited island in Britain, into self-catering accommodation, a hostel and seasonal restaurant - which is popular both with Shetland Islands locals and visitors from across the world. 

"The visitors came, and still do, around 6,000 bed nights per year in a very short season," says Debbie.

To drum up more year-round business, they transformed the former RAF supplies depot into Shetland's first gin distillery, with the help of business partners Stuart and Wilma Nickerson, and are raising investment to install Shetland’s first malt whisky distillery.

Their award-winning gin, Shetland Reel, has already found favour as far afield as Japan and South Africa and Debbie says her time in the RAF has served her well in business.

"The military gives you a 'can do' attitude, it teaches you to find a way through a problem and see a project through to completion in a timely manner, regardless of how important or tedious the task is," she says.  

Her military experience taught her the value of networking, of caring for and valuing her team, of working together and of taking pride in whatever you do: "I have attempted to bring all these aspects to the business."

The company often employs ex-service people, including Shetland Reel's distillery manager who Debbie says is "just the person for the job" of taking on the logistical challenges of making gin on the UK’s most northerly inhabited island.

Debbie's advice to former military personnel thinking about setting up their own business is to plan well and to try to gain some business experience first - paid or voluntary.

She gained valuable experience after leaving the RAF, as a support manager for a new organisation in Grantown, setting up administrative and management systems.

"Listen to people. I have found business people will quite often talk openly and are willing to help new businesses as they get off the ground.  Looking back there are occasions when I didn’t listen and I regret it," she adds.

"Ex-service people have the ability, focus and determination to be a great success as their own boss, and of course are not frightened of hard work.

"Doing sufficient research and taking advice from the right people will set the foundations for a successful and growing business."

FSB member Debbie Strang, director at Shetland Distillery Co, Shetland Facilities management and Saxa Vord.

From Royal Engineer to training provider

Gary Tucker, Managing Director of Network Training Partnership and Chief Executive of PATAM

For training company boss Gary Tucker, the “leadership skills, drive and passion” he needed to start a business had been well honed after a 23 year career in the military. 

The former Recovery Mechanic served in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers over two decades, a role that not only took him on numerous operational tours to Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, and Northern Ireland, but also set the scene for his two successful businesses. 

“I’d been in the Army for 23 years and had a young daughter who’s now four,” Gary said. “I wanted to make that break as I really wanted to give setting up my own business a go.” 

As part of a learning opportunity while in the Army, Gary gained vital experience by starting up his own training and recruitment business, so it seemed a logical step to build upon when he left the Engineers in 2016. 

“I learnt a lot of hard lessons during military time, which were invaluable,” he said. “You wear many hats in the military and my last job was being in charge of a high profile training and development programme, so this was a natural thing to go into when I formed my own business.”

After leaving the Army, Gary had a brief stint of employment in the commercial sector to get some experience, but felt he had “unfinished business”. His “burning desire and drive” to run his own company took over and after being awarded the training contract with the AA, he decided to dive straight in and set up on his own.

With his new found business skills, he started Network Training Partnership Ltd, which now has contracts with big businesses in the automotive and insurance sectors. The business has four full time employees plus a consortium of 21 individuals and companies that provide the training.

Gary is also the chief executive of PATAM, a business that provides digital identity cards for the automotive, logistics and transportation sector.  

Talking about the challenges he faces as a business owner, Gary says “expectation management” is a key lesson for veterans setting up their own businesses.

“In the military, you say what you are going to do and you get stuff done,” he added. “You have to get used to how other people conduct their business. We’ve achieved so much in such a short space of time because of drive and getting stuff done. It’s about relying on my military network, surrounding yourself with good people. The majority of my ex-military contacts possess the same drive.

“Reliability, professionalism and drive, are the three things they all possess it in abundance. If I ask them to do something, it will be done professionally.”

In fact, around 80 per cent of his company’s trainers are ex-military and specialise certain fields, from mental health through to automotive skills.

With such a reliance on former service personnel, investing time and energy into them is important to Gary. He provides free training courses for service leavers and ex-forces as part of the business corporate responsibility programme, as well as sponsorship, plus general support and advice. 

“If they are going to start up their own business after they leave the military then they should do it as soon as possible and just go for it,” he advised. “If you’re a success in the military, you’ll do exceptionally well when you form your own business because of the qualities you leave with.”

“I would also recommend taking a look at organisations like X-Forces Enterprise and FSB for advice, mentoring and access to funding."

FSB member Gary Tucker, Managing Director of Network Training Partnership and Chief Executive of PATAM.




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