From battlefield to boardroom

Returning to civilian life can present a challenge for ex-military, but some veterans have gone on to achieve notable entrepreneurial success

From battlefield to boardroom

A career in the military is arguably one of the most respected and valued vocations in the UK. Depending on the choice of the individual, it can span between five and 20 years. And as with most careers, there is always an option to switch direction. However, when it comes to civilian life, army leavers face a unique predicament.

The prospects of a second career for an individual coming from an exceptional and demanding industry can be both exciting and intimidating. Luckily, there is help available from different avenues to help them explore, and conquer a return to ‘civvy street’. 

As success stories go nothing hits the spot better than the saga that birthed Gorkana, the internet database for journalists and PR professionals. The company was founded by Alex Northcott in 2003 and named in honour of Sergeant Gorkana, who rescued him from drowning in a swamp in Borneo during their time in the Royal Gurkha Rifles.

After leaving the military in 1996, Northcott sought work in the PR industry and after 22 interviews, landed a junior press officer role with JP Morgan, the American bank. “A lot of my colleagues went into banking, accountancy; they went abroad to work with large companies,” he recalls. “But the hard thing about leaving the army and moving into the civilian world is that you’re really behind the curve.”

It’s not unusual for ex-military to find themselves in this quandary. Stuart Nicol, ex-military man and founder of Reboot Ventures, a venture capitalist firm that funds businesses founded by ex-servicemen and women, experienced the same. “I think people didn’t know where to pigeonhole me against my civilian peers,” he says. “It was difficult enough trying to figure out what you were passionate about, but it was much more difficult convincing other people to give you a chance.”

Nicol described the transition period as crossing a chasm between the military life and civilian life. “You’re almost like an economic migrant,” he says. “You’ve kind of been in this bubble where everybody speaks a different language and have a different currency and you’ve got to spend about two years coming out of that.” Fortunately, most people in such circumstances will find a wealth of resources available, including transitional programmes and charities, to aid them in the transition.

One such institution is the Centre for Enterprise (CFE) based at Manchester Metropolitan University. The centre recently launched its Enterprise for Forces programme, aimed at military leavers with an interest in starting a business or topping up with some official qualifications.

The course also addresses language barriers which research found is a key challenge for veterans. Understandably, shifting from daily usage of military language and adapting to the business world and language is no easy conversion but with some favourable attributes already in the bag, adapting should be less problematic. “They’re already quite driven and hardworking and they’ll put the time in,” says Claire Pattison, the programme manager at CFE. “They just need support with some business skills and language skills.”

Nicol considers ex-military entrepreneurs to be as competent as their civilian peers in building their businesses, but believes some other financiers regard them as weaker candidates for funding because they don’t have a track record. This was one of the motives for founding his military-focused VC firm.

“Principally, we’re looking at businesses which are already established in some form,” says Nicol. “They’ll have at least quarter of a million turnover and then the key criterion is that somebody in a key area of the business needs to be ex-military.”

Whilst financial success is the goal for most entrepreneurs, for Northcott the initial vision for Gorkana was to create a company that breaks even, allowing him to pay himself a salary. Having always had an entrepreneurial streak and undertaking a PR internship at university, he knew this should be his first port of call.

“My lightbulb moment was 2003 at Morgan Stanley,” he says. “An idea to create a database full of journalists for all sectors popped into my head. So I went and did my research. I met with about 30 institutions, including banks, insurance companies and other PRs. I said ‘look, I want to do this,’ and 28 out of 30 turned around and said ‘we need it’. So that bit of research gave me the confidence to go away and build the system.”

As with any start-up business, good management of the financials is paramount. Northcott stresses the importance of not over stretching cashflow and other resources, and that finding the right people is most crucial. “Good people who take the initiative can take you to places you never dreamed of going with your business,” he says. “You’ve got to be quite ruthless with hiring the right people.”

Dabbling in a familiar sector seems like a reasonable route but for Mark Attwood, founder of Attwood Digital, a digital agency, and PAL Skip Hire, after four years with the RAF, entrepreneurialism was a means for survival. “I had no family back-up, there was nothing for me to do except do whatever I could to get by,” he recalls. “I set up a publishing company because I saw it as a way of making an income. And I was pretty successful at it.” For Attwood, there are many similarities between carving out successful careers in the military and in business. “Everything you do in the air force is monitored and measured. The pursuit of excellence is something that happens both in the military and in businesses.”

There is no doubt that having a military background in the world of business will stand you in good stead to endure. “The foundation [the army] gives you is rigorous,” says Northcott. “It’s about not giving up, it’s about drive. It’s about having a plan and being able to adapt very quickly.”

For Northcott, the civilian street and military road are two very different routes but he believes they cross paths in terms of respect. “At JP Morgan you’re a very small pin in a big machine and you’ve got to work with people because it’s a difficult environment, far more so than the army,” he says. “But the Gurkhas are tough and strict. They don’t really care about your background or about who you are. They want to know you’re not gonna get them killed. So you work hard to earn their respect and trust. And the same goes for the business world.”

Success in anything is never a straightforward route but armed with superior pressure-withstanding abilities and a multitude of resources, ex-service personnel are in stronger positions to face a different type of foe.

Northcott says the first port of call is to be passionate about something. “From there it’s a lot of hard work – and not in the sense of marching 40 miles in the pouring rain and freezing cold. It’s about dedication and drive. It’s not giving up and pursuing every opportunity.” Attwood believes confidence is also key. “Don’t be afraid to just do it, and do it now. Don’t procrastinate. Don’t wait for somebody to give you permission.” 

Dara Jegede
Dara Jegede

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