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Glenn Keys’ advice for building a veteran-owned business

Veterans are exceptional entrepreneurs who bring leadership, management and problem-solving skills to build their own businesses. 

At a glance:

  • Veteran Glenn Keys AO founded Aspen Medical in 2003, and now has 6,000+ employees globally. 
  • Glenn was named EY Entrepreneur of the Year Australia in 2016.
  • He says his military experience taught him to develop good plans and direct good people to deliver them, solve problems, and distill important information.

After WWI, veterans Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness were given an assignment: survey an air race across northern Australia. As they drove more than 2,000km setting up supply dumps for the competitors, they developed the idea that would become Qantas.

Peter Liston, co-founder of the Veteran Community Business Chamber, wants the organisation to help inspire that entrepreneurial mindset in veterans today.

“We’ll know we’ve succeeded in that goal when we have developed an entrepreneur ecosystem that not only nurtures and inspires the seed of entrepreneurship from within the military community, but also helps develop solid business acumen and creates funding models so businesses can access the capital and support they need to grow,” Liston says.

In Australia, there are numerous examples of excellent veteran-founded businesses and, over the summer, we’re sharing their stories – what inspired the founders, how they started their own businesses, how they’ve built them and, of course, why their experience as veterans makes these founders a force to be reckoned with. 

First up: Glenn Keys AO.

Aspen Medical, a provider of healthcare solutions across public and private sectors in Australia and overseas, was founded by Glenn Keys AO and Dr Andrew Walker. The founders had been schoolmates since the age of 12 and both were Army veterans.

Glenn graduated from Duntroon in the class of ’84, in front of his distant relative RSL National President Sir Wiliam Keys and wife Dulcie. Glenn, when we ask how they are related, walks us through a pretty complicated family tree, then illustrates their close relationship through the story of ‘Bill’ as Glenn called William, being mistaken for his father at that 1984 Duntroon graduation.

The Governor General suggested, on account of Glenn and William’s shared last name, that William must have been very proud of his graduating son. Dulcie, supposedly Glenn’s mother in the Governor General’s estimation, responded “Oh no, he’s not the father” – neglecting to mention that nor was she ‘the mother’. 

Glenn’s father had actually served in the military though, along with several uncles and his grandfather.

“My father’s father was in the 1st Light Horse twice,” Glenn smiles. “He came home medically discharged, changed his name and joined again.”

Defence was in Glenn’s blood then, and he served 15 years and completed an engineering degree during his service. He describes it as “a fantastic time”. 

He was posted to England, where he was the first engineer to go to test pilot school; to Papua New Guinea, where he taught the local defence force to maintain their own vehicles and equipment; and to Germany, when it was still separated into East and West.

After 15 years of adventures, one proved too challenging. Glenn was posted to a very remote region, too far from the medical specialists his son, who has Down syndrome, required. As much as he loved the military, family came first.

 

Building Aspen Medical

Several years later, having helped build and sell defence startup Aerospace Technology Services, and spent five years at Raytheon, Glenn contacted his old friend Andrew Walker. The UK’s medical system was failing and Prime Minister Tony Blair was after innovative solutions. Aspen Medical was born in May 2003.

The business now employs more than 6,000 people globally, and Glenn’s leadership was recognised in 2016 when he was named EY Entrepreneur of the Year Australia. Of course, there have been challenges along the way to today’s success story, but Glenn’s military experience helped the business face each. 

“We were taught in the military that we’re never going to be an expert, but that we can pull together good people, develop a good plan and then let people deliver on that plan,” says Glenn.

“The military is brilliant at problem solving. It teaches people management. It teaches you to see through the noise, distill information and discern what’s important. Finally, the military teaches you that you must never stop learning.”

In the military, Glenn says, large, complex issues are broken down so they can be understood, so intelligence can be gathered and a solution built. A plan is then developed to deliver that solution. 

“It’s perfect preparation for business,” he says.

 

Glenn Keys’ advice to entrepreneurial veterans

Glenn offers this advice to veterans looking to flex their entrepreneurial muscles:

  1. Talk to people who are already out of Defence to discuss the current challenges in the business world. Most are very happy to take a call.
  2. Whatever your idea is, test it as much as you can. Talk to people about it and work out its strengths and weaknesses. Figure out how you can adapt it to make it even stronger.
  3. Once you’re ready to kick off, don’t be afraid to call on the network to help grow your business. Ring veterans who are also in business and say, “Here’s what I’m doing. Do you need to buy this, or to pay for my services? You’re a veteran, I’m a veteran.” Tap into that network. The vast majority of veterans want to help others.

 

Join us on 10 March to see a panel of veteran entrepreneurs discuss how they started their own businesses, how they’re continuing to grow those businesses, and their tips for success. Register now for ‘How to build skills for business and employment’ using the form below.

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