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Why Ex-forces personnel have the skills for creating great businesses

AT THE RECENT Scottish Ex-Forces in Business Awards, I was delighted and honoured to be named their ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ for 2021. To be acknowledged by my peers in this way is, and will remain, a career highlight for me and the trophy I received will always be guaranteed a prominent place on my mantlepiece. The awards, the largest of their kind, seek to highlight the achievements of those of us who go from serving our country into the world of business and are presented at a glittering ceremony held each year. The stories and life experiences I heard at this year’s awards were inspiring and will stay with me throughout the rest of my career.

However, while it was wonderful to hear the stories of talented people who have left the British Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, and Royal Marines and used the skills they gained while serving to build impressive careers – I couldn’t help but think about how many other such stories there are out there. Each year, thousands of individuals, equipped with the fitness, discipline, quick thinking, and expertise that a career in the military helped them develop, enter the civilian workforce and go on to excel in their chosen second careers.

My own story is, it became clear to me, one of many. I joined the Royal Navy when I was 16 years old, being the youngest person in my basic training and also the youngest on my first ship. Basic training was incredibly challenging but I really loved it. I had come from an Ayrshire village that suffered from high unemployment and worrying crime rates and so the Navy provided me with an escape from the cycle that unfortunately consumes so many young people today. In the Navy, I found myself in the Warfare Branch and soon specialised in above water electrical engineering – where I got to work with radar and missile systems. Throughout the course of my naval career, I served on frigates and was based out of both Plymouth and Portsmouth. The Navy currently uses the phrase, “Made in the Royal Navy” on its promotional material and recruitment campaigns, I can say that, for me, it’s certainly true – I was made in the Royal Navy.

When I founded my company, Pillow Partners, in 2006, it soon became clear that the skills, knowledge, and experience I gained in the Navy would be key to its success.

Pillow provides expert and professional property management services to holiday homes and serviced apartments to help them reach the markets they need to grow their businesses.

For guests, Pillow works to connect them with an extensive range of properties to let both in Scotland and across the UK. Our Ayrshire-based firm goes a step further than others in the industry through the sophistication of our business model; we help providers maximise their income and enjoy a hands-off approach. Pillow goes far beyond simple advertising by a bespoke and tailored service to meet the needs of both guests and clients. However, Pillow’s ambitions, driven by our dedicated and highly-experienced team, go further than the UK and we aim to open in more countries across the world, including the USA, in the near future.

Running a company and being part of the crew of a ship may not, at first glance, have much overlap but there are transferrable skills connecting the two that any employer would be glad to have in their talent pool. Communicating clearly and effectively, being able to think quickly, plan and execute a strategy, ambition, teamwork, and responsibility are all vital to both and have been a huge factor in helping me build the team that has made Pillow the success that it has been.

They are also skills that each and every former soldier, sailor, airman, and marine leaves the military with and, in many cases, are ready and willing to bring to the labour market – so, the question remains, what can be done to help create a pipeline of personnel that carries our talented ex-servicepeople straight into the world of business?

Firstly, there is the question of funding. While there is some available, it would be wonderful to see the Scottish Government, in tandem with the UK Government, work to create specific bespoke resources to help people leaving the forces to create their own businesses. The potential return on even the most modest investment in this would be significant and would help to boost our economy, especially as it recovers from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. This could be deployed in partnership with colleges, universities, and the experts at the Ex-Forces in Business Awards to create a network of talented, intelligent, skilled individuals all working in the same direction and for the same goal.

There are many other potential steps that could be taken to help utilise the wealth of talent that leaves the forces each and every year, from more networking to encouraging businesses to listen to and take on ex-servicepeople, but the vital first step is to start, and then continue, a conversation on the subject.

If we fully realise the potential that these professionals have and begin to think about how we can best support them in their future endeavours, just imagine how many innovative, optimistic, and forward-thinking businesses we could have – like I said, my story is by no means the only one and there could be many, many more.

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