Responsibility and perseverance – Little Big Vets

Bravery and resilience are key to successful entrepreneurship after leaving the military. Lt Col Guy Denison-Smith started an exciting self-motivated professional chapter after over 26 years’ service.

Now Managing Director for Universal Recruitment and Interim Solutions (URS), he aims to help service leavers and veterans find second careers - something very close to his heart.

Listen now to Guy’s interview on Little Big Vets:

From commanding and training infantry soldiers on operational tours of Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Bosnia to managing 650-person battalions, Guy is no stranger to the qualities of leadership.

Spearheading the digitisation of British Army officer training and advising the UK’s United Nations representative on foreign policy, his career is undeniably  impressive and unique.

He also founded his own Croatian wine import company Blue Ice Wine, led an expedition of Grenadier veterans with life changing injuries on the inspirational Yukon 700 expedition.

Nick Haley talked to Guy about his inspiring journey and how he achieved what he has.


Guy’s army career

Joining at Sandhurst in early 1991, Guy later joined the Grenadier Guards on ceremonial duties in London. He commanded a recce platoon over two tours of Northern Ireland before joining the training staff. A term in company command took him back to Northern Ireland.

Guy toured Bosnia in the late 90s as a staff officer at NATO headquarters, delivering training at the Staff College before launching the Security Sector Reform (SSR) Cell military police in Afghanistan. A promotion to Army HQ saw him lead a pivotal tactical digitisation job, helping the army employ digitised voice and mapping data on the battlefield.

Deciding to put family first, Guy applied for an exciting job in New York advising the UK’s ambassador to the United Nations for nearly four years. “It probably killed my career - but I knew this would be the case,” he reflected. A tour of Kuwait followed where Guy trained soldiers before returning to the UK and retiring from service in 2017.


Early military days

Guy initially saw his 5 years of ceremonial work with the Grenadier Guards as a thrill and an honour. “I believe there are around a billion people watching Trooping the Colour at any given time around the world. We as an army and a nation should be incredibly proud - we do ceremony like no one else.”

Appreciating the seriousness of his regiment’s role, he said “Army people laugh at it, but we were the first point of contact if anything went wrong, particularly at night. We worked closely with the police, but we were the ones that had to be there,” he explained.

The unwritten Grenadier motto was “Twice The Man”: their primary role was as infantry soldiers, while public duties were really their secondary role. While many people only see the Grenadier guards “wearing red tunics in London”, Guy explained that the vast majority are in combat fatigues training for or going on operations.

However, he discovered that the 6 to 8-week “Blue Line” routine intrinsic to his duties restricted his physical training and sense of progress - the Guards mounted a duty every 24 to 48 hours. Fortunately, an operational tour in south Armagh and subsequent tour of northern Ireland provided much-needed challenge and fulfilment.


Advisor to the UK’s United Nations Ambassador

Fed up with the army HQ culture, which he felt was toxic and didn’t utilise people properly, Guy jumped at the opportunity for a new role. This realisation wasn’t immediate, however: “I should’ve done it before - but I assumed the system would look after me.”

It also marked the first time Guy actively tapped into his extensive military network - something he does daily to facilitate his recruitment successes at URS. Calling people who could influence things, Andy Bristwow at Royal Signals proved incredibly helpful to Guy. Receiving the role of a lifetime, he moved to New York with his family in March 2011.

“If someone told me when I first went to Sandhurst that I’d go to New York for four years, I’d have laughed at them. It was one of the most fascinating things I’ve done. Witnessing UK foreign policy first-hand on the floor of the New York UN Security Council was staggering.”

Guy hit the ground running - in his first 2 weeks, the Libya Resolution 1973 went through the chamber, the Cote d'Ivoire was collapsing, and events unfolded in Syria and Mali. “There was continuous uncertainty, particularly in Africa, Syria, and the Middle East.” Afghanistan hadn’t become a UN concern - the UN mission in Iraq was coalition-led.

“The Russians were absolutely against everything the US, the UK, the French and like-minded people were saying, and they’d bring the Chinese with them, so getting anything through the security council was incredibly difficult,” he said of watching Russian and Chinese behaviour in the chamber.


Living in New York

Guy’s family enjoyed a uniquely exciting life in their civilian community of expats and American city workers, visiting 35 states in 3 ¾ years and skiing on winter weekends off. “The slopes were so close - we managed about 30 days’ skiing one winter,” he recalled. However, Guy found it hard with his two older children remaining in UK boarding school.

The family ultimately left New York still craving adventure. Guy taught international officers at the Kuwaiti Staff College for two years, finding the culture shock of Kuwait fascinating yet bizarre. “Money was no object - but we couldn’t quite get to grips with it. There was the option to stay for a third year, but we wanted to go home.”


Becoming a civilian chief of staff

Guy decided that to succeed at a second career, he had to leave the army before turning 50. Returning to the UK, he took a teaching job at the UK Staff College - but was already talking to headhunters and networking to find a new role.

Alerted to a chief of staff role for an ultra-high net worth family, in 2018 Guy attended his first interview since 1987. His experience put him head and shoulders above the other four candidates and he was offered the job within 30 minutes of leaving the interview. “I thought, ‘This doesn’t happen to me,’" he recalled.

However, Guy still hadn’t formally resigned - requesting PVR (Personal Voluntary Resignation), he was shocked at the inefficiency of army processes. “Between 2017 and 2018 they talked about having too many officers - but for a 47 year old Lieutenant Colonel willing to leave immediately, they couldn’t have made it more difficult.”

Receiving the job offer in mid-2018, Guy gave up his resettlement and leave allocations, only receiving full clearance from Glasgow 4 weeks prior to starting his new job in September 2018. “If I’d signed off properly, I’d only have left in January 2018.”


Transitioning to a civilian career

Prior to Guy’s arrival, the head of the family experienced bad press, so his PR advisor suggested hiring a chief of staff.  “A real eye-opener”, the role was ideal for an ex-soldier: very similar to being a brigade or battle group chief of staff, requiring a proactive mindset with excellent prioritisation and analytical skills.

Guy spent three days at the family’s Highlands residence getting to know them and understanding their problems. Overseeing the family’s private assets, Guy advised upwards, “talking truth to power.” He visited properties in London, Sussex, Amsterdam, France and the Mediterranean to understand their workings, problems and successes.

Guy saw reporting good news as crucial: “Often, high net worth individuals only see problems and are quick to complain - part of my role was reporting what was going well.”

He found the environment staggering but “great fun”, often having to handle large fee transfers, collect assets (such as million-pound cars) and deal with investment advisors.


Starting a company in lockdown

As 2020 drew near, Guy felt the role had become toxic, “but I always knew it had the chance of going that way because of the types of individuals you’re dealing with. We had six personal assistants in three years. When the family said they wanted to let them go, I simply had to deal with it and find another one.”

Biding his time, he was made redundant as the pandemic hit. “If you’ve been screamed at by sergeant majors for years it’s not difficult to deal with a high net worth individual!”

Attending interviews during this time proved crucial to establishing URS. Consistently reaching the final stages, Guy repeatedly heard that he lacked experience. “Not being arrogant, I knew I could do those jobs well. I could’ve learned quickly and added value - and that frustrated me.”


Blue Ice Wine

Believing “If you have an itch, you should scratch it”,  he followed his highly successful older brother into entrepreneurship. An American friend encouraged Guy to establish his own Croatian wine importing business - Blue Ice Wine.

“I dipped my toe to see what I could do - I liked that part of the journey. I’d never done anything like it before. There was so much to deal with - from price negotiation to web design to distribution.”

There was no go-to solution telling Guy how to set up his business. “Perhaps there was some ego involved in proving I could do this. Perhaps I could’ve chosen an easier product - but you’ve got to find something you enjoy and go with that.”

He believed one’s ability to sell something links to one’s enjoyment rather than being an expert. Undeterred by the pandemic, he fully and independently researched import processes, the best wines and business setup practicalities, also taking the alcohol licensing exam for extra cover.

Aiming to capitalise on Christmas 2020, his first shipments only arrived on 29 December due to combined Brexit and covid-related issues - a frustrating but necessary lesson in reading supply chains. The wine was stored and shipped by London City Bond, who Guy paid a monthly fee for a relatively automated ordering process.

Blue Ice had a good first year: covid had boosted online alcohol sales, and Guy sold 300 bottles a month with a 30% B2C margin and a 7-10% B2B margin.


Business setup considerations

Setting up Blue Ice’s bank account took nearly four months due to UK banking system red tape - a problem that would repeat when establishing URS. Guy spent the time testing samples, deciding on the best sales platforms, and importing the wine.

He designed his own Shopify store, learning to troubleshoot on the fly. “It’s a continuous learning process - don’t be afraid of platforms like Shopify: experiment between platforms to work out what’s best for your product or service.”

Already paying Shopify an annual fee, Guy felt they took too large a commission for their services. He used PayPal briefly but soon stopped due to high charges and withheld payments due to proof of address issues that ruined the customer experience.

To courier orders under nine bottles he used APC, saving a couple of pounds which, when starting a new business, add up to crucial running cost efficiency.

Guy learned pricing the hard way - initially building £0.25 for delivery into each order hurt his margins. He absorbed delivery and storage costs by factoring at least £1 extra into prices. “Look at all your costs, no matter how small, and build prices accordingly. It’s the small ones that can add up to really bite you,” he advised.

Guy learned a valuable pricing lesson when a retailer advised him how they’d have to grossly adjust their RRPs based on prices Guy incorrectly based on markup instead of margin. “When it comes to pure product sales, you’re always best working off margins.”


Establishing URS

Joining defence consultancy Universal Defence and Security Solutions (UDSS) as an associate “as a side hustle to the wine business,” Guy’s success with several projects prompted UDSS approached him in April 2021 to lead a new UDSS recruitment arm.

Originally planning to buy into an existing recruitment company with Guy as one of two MDs, UDSS realised creating their own venture made more sense. Their principal aim was to help veterans and service leavers find jobs - without getting into mass recruitment.

“If someone asked me for 40 guards for a job, I’d send them somewhere else, because we want to help individuals have second careers - not just have a job.”

Driven by his experiences being told he didn’t have enough experience for certain jobs, Guy had 2 aims:

  1. Help and guide the veterans’ community from his point of view. “I’m not arrogant enough to say ‘this is the way you should do it’ - but I will advise.”
  2. Convince employers to hire ex-military people. “They’re adaptable, dependable and resilient. They go the extra mile, they can manage risk and solve problems.”

He avoids talking about leadership and management: “Often if clients hear about military leadership, they have this notion of a sergeant major screaming - which isn’t right in a commercial workplace.”

Instead, he sang the intrinsic benefits of veterans and service leavers from the rooftops: honesty, integrity, selfless commitment and respect for others. He was proved right by a City bank who, several months after starting a veterans’ programme, experienced an osmosis effect on their existing staff by their hired veteran.

Staff who’d previously been late and left early started arriving early, leaving later, looking smarter and working as a more cohesive team. While he can’t be sure if it was the veteran’s behaviour or the staff paying additional respect to the veteran, there was definitely a lasting change.

Guy feels ex-military people should be very proud of the fact that while they aren’t suitable for every job, there are many they are and should occupy. “If we can champion that, it will improve the lot of the veteran and service leaver.”

He added that rank is now almost immaterial when it comes to who gets what job - while very senior officers might be more qualified for more senior roles, rank is not as important when hiring between senior non-commissioned warrant officers (SNOs).

“10 to 15 years ago there was a gap but there’s much more equilibrium now. If I felt a SNO was absolutely right for a role, but the client has stated ‘What I really want is a major’, I’d still put forward that SNO and explain to the client what they were getting.”


Yukon 700

Strangely, with the extra personal time it created, lockdown brought people together. Guy reconnected with old friend Rob from his recce platoon, now living in America. Rob wanted to take UK and American wounded ex-military on a Yukon expedition, assisted by Major John Frith. Finally taking place in June 2020, Yukon 700 was born.

Guy called John in March 2020 offering to help raise expedition funds. After their conversations, John got Guy to help raise money AND participate in the expedition. “It didn’t take a huge amount of convincing - the challenge was irresistible.”

Taking on the Yukon territory in northwest Canada, their challenge was to canoe 740 km within 7 days, taking 4 canoes from Whitehorse to Dawson City up the River Yukon. They were totally unsupported, so the stakes were very high. “If something went wrong, we could only get someone to a hospital in 24 hours.”

The trip involved five wounded veterans.”We wanted to balance three non-wounded, which sets up a unique challenge: with two people in a canoe at any time, there will always be two wounded in one of them.”

Casualty officer Matt - from regimental charity the Colonel’s Fund Grenadier Guards - provided five names:

  • Paul Richardson, the eldest, who joined the army in the mid 80s and left in the mid 90s, and suffered PTSD.
  • Garth Banks, a platoon commander on the Herwick tour,who’d lost both his legs.
  • Tony Checkley, a guardsman who had lost a leg.
  • Alex Harrison, who had been shot through the eye on a tour Guy was also on.
  • Dougie Adams, suffering from PTSD, rounded up the party.

Ben Stephens took Rob’s place, raising £15,000 for Yukon 700 by cycling 700 km over 27 continuous hours around the Suffolk countryside. “I’d hate to see his saddle sores!” laughed Guy.

Further fundraising generated over £85,000, including a large fundraising dinner for Guy’s regimental charity which raised circa £45,000. £19,000 came from Yukon 700’s JustGiving page. This went to SAFRA and Combat Stress. “Since then, we’ve had some amazingly generous donations from different organisations and people,” said Guy.

John and Guy spent one day prior to the trip completing admin before a day’s training with the participants - including capsize drills. “The water was unbelievably cold. We set off at midday - just the eight of us with our canoes and bags.”

Yukon 700 was a huge success - financially, but also spiritually for the wounded veterans, who snapped back into military mode and benefitted from working as part of a team again. “The banter was huge - it did everything we wanted to do and more,” Guy enthused.


Military career highlights and challenges

While he couldn’t pinpoint one thing, Guy proudly stated, “The greatest privilege I had was to lead and command soldiers. It was a huge challenge and honour - just what I signed up for. I hope I never took it for granted, because ultimately that’s our purpose as officers.”

However, he was critical of army processes and mindsets. “I naively thought the army would look after one in everything it did. I loved my time there - but I don’t think our way of reporting on people serves the army well. It’s almost based on what you’ve done, not your future potential - the potential paragraph in any report is the smallest part.”

Guy felt that the army didn’t necessarily judge people properly against leadership. “If an army is about how we lead and empower people, I don’t think that really happened - we’ve all seen press accounts of toxic leadership.” He recognises how the current administration is actively driving out toxic leadership, but that more could be done.

“As a Lieutenant Colonel, I wrote to a General saying what I thought was wrong with Land Tech courses. That was quite a necky thing to do - but I did get a response.”


Guy’s advice to service leavers

“Network. I’ve always lived off the trite adage “It’s who you know, not what you know.” The more you can network and reach out to people, the better.”

He strongly advised that when approaching people, ask for advice rather than directly asking for a job. “There’s a very subtle difference - people are more likely to want to help if you say “Can I pick your brains about something?” You want them to give something that’s within their power, even if it is solely advice.”

Guy believes manners and gratitude go far: “It takes nothing to say thank you if someone’s given you time - it makes them want to help you more. If you speak to somebody and don’t get anything back, you think “why did I bother?””

Guy points to the huge range of ex-military networks established and emerging. The Gen Dit Network, set up by ex-Royal Marine Chris Shaw, garnered around 10,000 followers within nine months, creating a huge support network offering new opportunities.

Guy continued, “Don’t be afraid to reach out to people you might not have spoken to for years - most people will give you the time, particularly if you've served alongside them or in general. They could open a door to one person who opens another door to someone else. Next thing you know, you’re offered a job.”

He also strongly believes that job hunters should “never, ever pay for someone to write your CV. It’s a personal document. Get some advice on it - but if you’ve not written it, it’s very obvious.”

And don’t do it on ChatGPT either!


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