We should treat our military veterans better - by helping them to become entrepreneurs
The army instils leadership skills but there aren't many veteran-owned businesses. Iqbal Wahhab hopes to change that
It’s minus 15 degrees in Kosovo at the height of its tensions with Serbia.
Twenty four year old Alex Matheson, serving in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, is part of a Nato mission that has been sent to the Serbian border.
A horde of Kosovans are seeking to break and enter Serbia, where they hear that one of their group has been held. The Serbian guard commanders say they will open fire if they do. It’s Alex’s first operation and his group is vastly outnumbered on either side and so can’t physically drive the warring factions apart.
“Over 48 hours we had to persuade the Kosovans not to attempt a border break and the Serbians not to shoot,” he says. “I had my troops and the Serbians looking to me. I had to keep strong. I had to keep alert and focus on the end result.”
The Serbians didn’t shoot and the Kosovans retreated, teaching him the importance of keeping calm which probably isn’t taught in business studies courses but really should be.
After seven years of service, which included further tours of Macedonia and Iraq, Alex returned to his native Inverness and in 2015 set up a breakfast cereal business called FUEL10K, hoping to capitalise on the trend among younger customers to ditch conventional square boxed options.
His 32-strong product range includes drinks in squeezable pouches, porridge pots and cookies and are stocked in Tesco, Asda, Sainsburys and Waitrose. Every year has seen double digit growth with sales now at £8m this year and expected to hit £10m next, all from a standing start and no outside investment. Last year he was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Heropreneurs, an organisation encouraging armed forces veterans to go into business on return to civilian life.
It’s often said we can judge a country by how well it treats its prisoners. But how we treat our veterans is equally revealing, perhaps more so, given around 4 per cent of the prison population is made up of ex-military.
Alex’s journey is a remarkable one, sadly not shared by many. Having worked with Help for Heroes and Combat Stress for a number of years, I’ve heard too many stories of returning servicemen being unprepared to come back to what they left often many years ago, beginning a cycle of family breakdown, homelessness, alcoholism, drugs, crime and imprisonment. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) means for many their only weekly activity is a counselling session.
Sometimes crime and homelessness are diving factors to join the armed forces in the first place.
“By the time I joined the army aged 21, I had lived on the streets aged 16, ran my first business, been on the run from the police for defrauding banks and catalogues, done drugs and employed a drug dealer,” Nick Wilson tells me.
In the army he found he had a family who always looked out for each other. But in 2013, on return, he set up a chauffeur company which, while successful, left him with the feeling that many business owners face of isolation: “What got me through the really bad times was that sense of survival – knowing real hard times, horrendous, shit situations experienced whilst on operational tour, those that put life in perspective. The gritted, dogged determination that you needed to get through those days, weeks, months is what will get you through business.”
After two years Nick sold his business for a profit just around the time he was diagnosed with PTSD. “I was having suicidal thoughts, the pain from my spinal injury was becoming a real problem with the meds and their side-effects causing me to lose grip on reality.”
In 2016 he suffered a nervous breakdown but after rehabilitation was determined not to let mental health issues ruin his life. He set up Working Minds Matter – a consultancy firm helping business with mental wellbeing in the workplace.
“I think it is important for a veteran who is looking to go into business for themselves to have a better understanding of who they are as a person, what makes them who they are, their values, their beliefs, their strengths and weaknesses. They are no longer a part of a large family unit, having to follow another leader or manager, working for an organisation’s values and beliefs rather than those of their own.”
I first met Nick at an event Dragons Den star Peter Jones organised last summer at Buckingham University where 20 businesspeople speed mentored hundreds of schoolkids from around the country who all had entrepreneurial dreams.
Our collective worry was that the education system would slowly sap that out of them. I observed to Nick was that the army instils leadership skills and I was surprised that there weren’t more veteran-owned businesses.
Nick then put out a competition to his network to a make a short video presentation of their emerging or aspirant business idea and the most compelling one would win a year’s mentoring with me.
The winner, Rob Dennison, joined the army in 2004, serving partly in Afghanistan. He still has recurring nightmares from when he visited the Helmand Province where he came across a child prostitution racket with many children lying dead. “When I returned I realised I’d gone from a high adrenalin career to nothing,” he says.
He told his girlfriend that once he’d got into trouble for brewing some coffee when out on patrol and she convinced him to start his own coffee business which he’s called The 50cal Coffee Company. It will be a social enterprise – a series of cafes where veterans can not only get his own blends and brews but also have the opportunity to talk to someone in private about the problems they are facing, starting in his home town of Lincoln.
In America there is much bigger public support for veterans and veteran-owned businesses than we have here. I’m hoping my year with Rob will help him get off the ground and get wider buy-in from the rest of us.
It’s not just about what people like Alex, Nick and Rob have done for us in their past in the services but also for what they are able to do for us in the next phase of their lives.