A business born from the carnage of war

A business born from the carnage of war

The genesis of Spearhead Compliance Training came from terrible risks taken in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Its founders are likely to become millionaires next year, but at a high personal cost. Maureen Messent reports.

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Think of a mate’s blood smeared over your wrists as you beg him to lie still in the dust, legless from the waist down, his left arm in a bush behind you. Imagine being so haunted by this scenario that it follows you home to the West Midlands and you wake screaming with fear between sweat-drenched sheets.

How would you cope if, once you’d sought help, you started to sob, tears you never knew you had thickening your voice, snot dripping into your mouth? You, who’d prided yourself on being a macho sort of bloke who’d been bloodied at Birmingham Irish Amateur Boxing Club, then won silver in the Junior Olympics between 2002-2003, ending up ranked third in the amateur world’s light-heavyweight ranks.

“There’s been sickening times,” says John Loveday, aged almost 29, a verbal mixture of laid-back mirth and black coffee-strong intensity, as he looks from his rent-free office over St Philip’s Cathedral in Birmingham city centre. “But the trick is to recall everything you’ve experienced. You milk all you have imbibed until it’s ingrained in you how to react. Jack Otter, that man who didn’t die in my arms, thank the God in whom I don’t believe, still walks beside me. So does Jonathan Horne, one of five killed in a huge blast.”

There was plenty he learned as a rifleman in the Royal Green Jackets in 2009 in Afghanistan, the worst period in military terms, recording 14 dead, 33 amputees, 230 woundings. “Perhaps I’d been a bit spoiled. My Kosova stint was little more than a slightly hairy peace-keeping, Iraq had its terrors from snipers, but Afghanistan...” and his eyes swivel back to St Philip’s. “I didn’t know what waited for me there.

“Dad and me, we were a one-parent unit. The Old Man taught me to cook, iron, hang my clothes up, never to leave home without polishing my shoes. All what I thought was boring and unnecessary until I enlisted at 16 and saw the mothers’ young treasures being bawled at because they’d never made a bed.”

By 2009, as he watched the shattered Jack Otter airlifted to what turned out as recovery, Loveday tussled with the notion that he’d reached that most dangerous of combat mindsets. “I’d started to believe I was invincible, invisible to snipers, Teflon-coated. “When Jack fell I’d been knocked off my feet, temporarily deafened, had had a brain-bleed. I felt my luck was running out. Time to leave. When I spoke to dad, he never gave a hint of his relief. Just the usual: ‘Whatever you think best, son.’”

Back home, unpacking in Hampton-in-Arden, came the first hint of trouble. His dad’s recollections of his own days in the Coldstream Guards before he became a Birmingham bus driver no longer enthralled Loveday, consumed as he was with unexpected flash-backs of death and mayhem. It got to the point where his dad would walk into his bedroom in the small hours to wake him up with the words: ‘You’ve been screaming again, son.’

There was the social isolation of civilian life, too. Years of living in close contact with other men had forged trust and friendship. Now he was alone, out of touch with his peers from Smith Wood’s School. Deeply depressed. Ill-tempered to the point of snapping at his father.

This was the point when, taking himself to his doctor, he owned up about his mental turmoil, and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. This led to what Loveday calls ‘magic brain-washing’, where he’d sit in front of rows of LED bulbs and tell an Army psychiatrist what combat thoughts passed through his mind.

This was an EMDR (eye movement desensitivation reprocessing) gadget. Put simply, it rinsed away the images that crept up on him round the clock, and it took just three hourly sessions to lay his ghosts to rest.

“The weirdest aspect of this was its uncovering of a fear so deep when I lay beside Jack that I’d never faced up to it:  I was convinced his grenade, by then under his body, would explode, taking me with it.”

All would be well, he thought, as he left after his final magic rinsing session. It wasn’t. Chelmsley Wood Job Centre couldn’t help. Loveday was told that, despite all his Army-taught skills, he wasn’t qualified to practice them in civilian ambiences. But they knew people who could, right next door, too, at the government-backed Pertemps People Development Group.

He was soon working again, but still on the first rung of civilian life, rushed off for first aid training, security work, hotel safety work and private investigation procedures.  Everything he’d done in the Army under different guises, in fact. His certificates started to mount up.

“I was feeling better all the time,” Loveday says, “but I wasn’t happy until I was sent to take photographs showing a couple of disability claimants were lying when they said both could hardly move. I trailed them from their home, which they’d loaded with tables and a roulette wheel – they were the entertainment laid on for a birthday party and were acting as croupiers.

“Entrance was by invitation only, so I kissed the girl on the door, told her to pass it on to the birthday girl, and slipped inside. Wearing the posh suit I carried in my van, of course. I got all the pictures. I hadn’t lost my edge. For the first time since leaving the Army I felt happy again. Motivated.”

Next came the ‘Boy’s Own’ job he landed himself – wait for this – chasing Somalian pirates away from shipping off the East African coast.  “Big money,” Loveday says. “But the only pirate vessel we came across was a leaky tub whose mariners looked as if they needed rescuing rather than chasing.”

By now, he’d met up with Paul Hood, just a couple of years older, who’d had near misses similar to his own during his stint in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, and they put their heads together, seeking work on a laptop at Hood’s home, their only ammunition this time a pack of business cards (£4 for 100).

They wanted work, yes, but then came a Virgin Mary and Angel Gabriel moment. “John, we’re being a couple of plonkers,” Hood told Loveday across the cramped room. “There’s firms out there with one-third our experience and training who get £2,500 per trainee per course they provide.”

Hood, by the way, is now Loveday’s fellow-partner in Spearhead Compliance Training, a back-room power who says he prefers to leave front-of-house to Loveday. Also by the way, that Spearhead name comes from the military-speak ‘Spearhead Lead Element’, which signals a moment’s notice to move.

And move they did. After training a handful of staff for the Principal Hayley hotel chain, its human resource manager told them they were the first truly professional outfit he’d come across. Their reputation spread by word of mouth – “needn’t have spent that four quid on business cards,” says Hood. But they were still £6,000 in the red by the end of their first year, still needed to eat.

Then NatWest bank not only used them as personnel trainers under their Entrepreneurial Spark project, but made them part of an accelerated support scheme under the aegis of NatWest, RBS and KPMG. That’s how Spearhead Compliance Training’s offices come to be above the RBS in St Philip’s Place, free for the moment while the company took off.

That disheartening £6,000 in the red soon changed to £30,000 in the black as they signed-up 125 qualified trainers. In truth, it was 124 trainers: the only chap Loveday had omitted to interview face-to-face turned up and effed and jeffed at his trainees.

“I got my one and only complaint” says Loveday. “Took a chance and landed myself in the wotsit. Lesson learned.”

Next to come calling was the Ministry of Defence, who used their courses to train ex-Army personnel in civilian work. Spearhead Compliance Training has recently completed their 1,000th contract. And the cash generated? Not so much satisfactory as a reassuring tsunami – but they say that as tyros, they’re a bit chary of talking figures. Would I mind terribly, they ask, if they just said their training empire includes the staff of 300 care homes, clubs, retail giants and the leisure industry (the Birmingham Rep theatre is one client). I don’t mind, although I do wheedle some figures out of them.

Their big break was still to come. Steve Smith, who sold his Poundland business for £50m, came calling. He invited them to his Kidderminster home, liked the cuts of their jibs, then did the unimaginable by opening his list of contacts, telling them to help themselves. “It’ll save you hours in getting past HR people and secretaries,” he told them.

Smith introduced them to luminaries of the West Midlands Safari Park, David Lloyd Leisure, Poundworld and The Range, the massive retailer with 107 stores throughout Britain employing 8,500 staff. “Get them and you’ll do well,” said Smith. Not half they haven’t.

Spearhead Compliance Training has just landed a contract worth between £3.5m and £5m to train those 8,500 staff over the next five years. Around £1.9m is signed up for the next 12 months alone, but again there’s a slight reticence because, Loveday and Hood say, “we don’t want to come across all smug and brash”.