Meet the volunteer giving veterans a head start in business

hannah General

Setting up a business after leaving the Forces can be a big decision. But thanks to the advice of Nigel Messenger, a Poppy Factory volunteer and business owner with over 20 years’ experience, dozens of veterans with health conditions have gone on to start their own companies.

As a Poppy Factory board member from 1992, Nigel was instrumental in laying the groundwork of the Getting you Back To Work (GYBTW) service which launched in 2010. It was from then that he began volunteering, giving veterans practical advice about setting up businesses that would empower and fulfil their ambitions.

Nigel said: “Over the years, I’ve spoken to hundreds ex-Service men and women. Many veterans don’t see their service as heroic, but I do. Volunteering has become part of my life and I see The Poppy Factory as part of my family.”

During his career, Nigel was the Managing Director of the Richmond Hill and Gate Hotels and owned several different companies. These included consultancy firms and a hotel business, which he ran with his wife for 10 years. In his youth, his first business venture was making hot dogs with his brother, which they sold in cinemas and ice rinks.

“It’s amazing the different variety of things people want to go into. I’ve chatted to dozens of veterans who have all sorts of ideas for companies, from setting up carpentry and locksmith businesses to more unusual outfits like framing companies and community vegetable growing projects.”

Advice that often comes up

If a veteran wants to start a business, Nigel’s real-life experience and advice can make all the difference.

“Typically, I’ll speak to veterans over Skype. They’ll have started by discussing job options with their Employment Consultant (EC), and if setting up a business is something they’d like to find out more about, then the EC will contact me and the three of us will speak on Skype.” 

During the Skye call, Nigel talks about the legal aspects of setting up a company and answers questions based on his experiences. Volunteering alongside him is also an accountant who gives free financial advice.

“I try to lay out the realities of self-employment so veterans have an informed choice. I wouldn’t ever want to put anyone off, but I do think learning from other people’s mistakes can help others make better decisions. Veterans have changed their ideas or gone about things in a slightly different way after we’ve spoken.

“What I often say is working for yourself can be a lonely. In the military, veterans are used to having people around them so it’s important to think about ways around this. For example, I suggest doing lots of networking or forming businesses in partnership with a trusted friend. I also suggest it can be useful to set up the businesses alongside full-time work to see how it goes.”

As well as speaking with veterans over Skype, Nigel also attends job fairs with ECs speaking to many veterans at a time. If you, or someone you know, is a veteran with a health condition and you’d like to find out about setting up a business, please do get in touch on or call 020 8939 1837.

Nigel is also a keen writer and has written a number of historical novels, his latest, From Eden To Babylon,  is now available to buy.

Find out more about our Getting You Back to Work service.
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