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In Conversation With Allan Thomson

Allan Thomson is Chief Executive of Aspire Defence Limited, a construction and facilities management services company, currently overseeing a long-term contract with the Ministry of Defence to build and maintain soldiers’ accommodation across South Wiltshire and at Aldershot.

Recently we chatted with him about Aspire’s work promoting gender balance in defence industry, his family’s first-hand experience of the Armed Forces over time, and why he’s been involved with the Women in Defence UK Awards since the very beginning.

Aspire Defence is one of our awards partners this year; why did you want the company to become involved with Women and Defence UK?

We’ve been involved right from the start, and we thought it was a really good idea. I knew Angela Owen, WiD UK founder, from when we served together in the Ministry of Defence and when she approached us, as a key player in defence industry, it made a lot of sense. It fitted perfectly with all our company values such as “care and respect”, as well as the obvious business necessity to recruit and retain people whatever their gender. I think this is something the Army has now openly embraced.

On a more personal note, my wife served for 18 years in the Army. She joined in the late 80s and really it was quite difficult for women in those days, so she’s been through all the trials and tribulations. My daughter is now a Private in the Army Reserves, so through her I’ve seen how things have moved considerably forward. The fact that more doors have opened up is not something I would have believed would have happened 25 years ago - it’s fantastic! I particularly welcome the opening up of the Armoured Corps and Infantry to females.

In terms of the Awards themselves, over the years I’ve been involved they really have developed, matured and gained a much higher profile, which in turn raises the profile of women in the sector. Of course, the Awards are one of these things you eventually want to see disappear – that there’s no longer a need to have a Women in Defence Awards because we’ve achieved equality, must ultimately be the aim.

So, for me, all of that makes the Awards a really good idea and something that Aspire Defence were, and are, very keen to get involved in.

Thank you for that! Sticking on that more personal theme, both you and your wife have served in the Army. For you, what are some of the differences? And were there differences in your experiences whilst serving in the Army?

My wife and I met in the Army and we both enjoyed being in it, but that’s a really good question.

One aspect is that we weren’t properly looked after as married couple in the 1990s. I know again that this has massively moved on from that time and that now it’s much more focused on having a family balance and so on.

Another point is that when first joining females were very much pigeon-holed into a role. My wife was an educator/trainer and she did get some good opportunities early on as a Troop Commander with the Royal Engineers at Chepstow. She did 18 years in service and that length of time shows it was a really enjoyable and rewarding career. However, there were lots of very difficult areas for servicewomen back then. For example, when my wife joined, the policy was that if she got pregnant, she had to leave. She was latterly one of the first to have a child and stay in service, so she was very much on the breaking ground of maternity leave. Thankfully I think many of these barriers and bad policies have been removed.

We are starting to see very senior females coming through, quite a few of whom I have observed coming up the ranks. I think we were just missing so much of the talent before and one of the realisations was, particularly in some cap badges, that because we didn’t have family friendly policies and various other things, half the talent was leaving, and that’s no way to run any business, whether it’s in defence or outside. So, I think realisation and pragmatism have come along and said: we must nurture all. We need women and people from all groups and backgrounds, we need to recruit from everywhere, otherwise we’re not going to make the best of the talent in society.

Yes, absolutely. So, is it a very different experience now for your daughter?

Absolutely, absolutely. She’s a nurse which people might think is very stereotypical, but she knows she could have done anything she wanted, and I think that’s the key thing. It’s having the opportunity, whether you want to do it or not is a different thing. The fact that you can join the Royal Marines, the special forces or the infantry is great, but if you don’t want to do it, that’s fine; it’s wrong to disparage people having the choice and the opportunity.

You’re doing lot of incredible things in your business on promotion of gender balance, do you see yourself as an advocate for the promotion of gender balance and how does that manifest itself in Aspire Defence?

It comes back to being able to recruit from the entirety of society, whether that’s gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion etc. We need the best to come, that’s a key element, so we have a very open recruitment policy. We also try to encourage flexible working practices which helps us keep people. Once we’ve got people and invested time, effort and money, we want to retain them.

Everyone goes through hard periods, for example, somebody who’s got a seriously ill partner needs support that we can offer. It’s about keeping good people and helping them through tough times in their lives, so that in the end they come back and stay with you.

Something I should also touch on is that Aspire do operate in the world of construction and this is a male-dominated, aging cohort that we’re struggling to recruit enough people into. One thing we’ve been doing in this space is going to local schools and showing the great range of careers in construction, from environmental technology jobs to the trades, and explaining how fulfilling it is, especially if you like being outside and hands on. I’ve been astounded by what I call my over-50 male, colleagues, who’ve really amazed me with how much energy they’ve put into inspiring the kids, particularly the girls, to come and join us.

So that’s one of the main elements. On the other side we’re pretty well gender balanced in the company. We’ve got quite a few senior female personnel, in my Operations team, we’ve got an Operations Director, . So, we’re quite well represented at senior level, but we do need more coming into the bottom of the pyramid on construction.

We’ve touched on it already, but you’ve said you have a background in the Army and MOD and now you’re in the private sector. What lessons have you learnt from your time in the Armed Forces and the public sector that you’ve been able to bring over into your role now?

It’s an interesting question and I did something recently at a veteran’s event where I was asked the same question. There’s definitely something about teamwork; teams are really the way defence runs, and industry is the same.

The other thing that I think is amazing is the amount of training you get in defence. I had years of training, whether that be initial training, Masters degrees or various leadership courses. That training and education is hugely beneficial, and it develops your skill set, which I found hugely useful on leaving Service. The Armed Forces do help get the best out of people and harness their potential, whether that’s at meetings, with mentors, through leadership or coaching. All of those are skills which were developed in me by the military.

When I first joined the Army, I was pretty shy, and I think the exposure you get over time develops your communication skills, self-confidence and personal skills. The Army and MOD give you exposure speaking to people, whether small or large audiences, and that’s a great training and personal development beast that has set me up well too.

The skills you miss are the commercial aspect of it but that very quickly comes when you leave, so I wouldn’t worry too much about that. I think I was pretty equipped with the necessary- golf clubs in my bag if you will - by the Army and MOD, so I am very thankful for that.

Is there a specific reason why Most Collaborative as a category appealed to Aspire Defence?

There certainly is. Aspire Defence has a long-term, 35-year contract with the MOD and we’re currently 12 years in. The only way you’re going to make a contract of that length work is through working together and collaborating. One of our corporate values is ‘delivering together’ and we do try to be collaborative with the MOD; we have a fantastic relationship with them.

It can’t all be pally; there’s a commercial contractual angle to it of course, but the fact that we work on the same floor means we see each other every day, we can nip any little problems in the bud. So, collaboration really is key to the success of our contract, both internally and externally across the interface and through the MOD. That’s reciprocated by the MOD and it’s a very positive relationship.

We’re also collaborating with the Army, delivering our £680M part of the Army Basing Programme (ABP). We have just passed the peak of our delivery and construction programme and will have completed the vast majority of buildings by the end of 2019. The Army have been fantastic about working together with that project, as it’s in our joint interest to get it done. I think both sides benefit from that approach and it’s really paid dividends in the delivery of the contract, but also in the success of the ABP.

And that was the contract that started in 2006 – Project Allenby/Connaught?

It did yes, so we’ve been delivering it since then. We had a big injection into the contract in 2016 for ABP, which we’ve been delivering ever since. So, around 130 new buildings for the Aspire run estate as we’ve already got a significant proportion of the British Army living within our footprint, and we’re bringing several thousand more in over the summer, around 4,000 personnel from Germany, some moving across from Tidworth. Larkhill is doubling in size from 2,000 to 4,000. In the end I believe we will have over 30% of the British Army on the Aspire run estate and almost all of the heavy armour. So, we’re delivering a crucial element of the Army’s base capabilities and we’re very proud of that.

When you’re delivering that base capability, that service space for the British Army, do thoughts about gender balance play a role in that?

Every soldier gets the same basic delivery; everyone gets a single, en suite room. The Officers’ and Seniors’ accommodation tend to be mixed. There are still separate soldiers’ male and female blocks but we’re seeing that break down now. I think people are becoming more relaxed about it now than they ever used to be. Everyone gets the same thing, people are mixing better, there’s less delineation, nobody eats separately and it’s a really positive thing. I think that gives everyone the opportunity to shine, no matter what gender you are. Aspire’s job really is to provide the base level accommodation and training facilities which enable the Army to drive forwards their agenda.

Outside of our work on basing, another aspect Aspire Defence seeks to support is military sport. We’ve got a huge number of facilities across our estate, particularly in Aldershot, and I’ve really seen a resurgence of Army, but in particular women’s sport, over the past few years, which has been fantastic to see and support. Under Army Basing, Aspire is also delivering a number of new gyms, 4G pitches and the traditional grass pitches.

That’s great, let’s look at sport a little more! What role do you think that military sporting life has to play in promoting gender balance, and how can the resurgence of women’s sports take that forward?

When I first joined in the late 80s my wife played Army hockey; she was a hockey international and the Army hockey captain, but they were treated as second class citizens. There was no doubt about it. They didn’t get the money or recognition that male Army hockey teams did and that was probably true across other sports. Again, that has very much changed; you’re seeing a resurgence in the quality and numbers of women joining, which means more people can play sport and the quality gets better.

Particularly on the team side, you can play more meaningful football, hockey, rugby games between units as the numbers of females increase in the Army. Also, the standard of sport at a national level has improved and there is more interest in women’s sport across the board. I watched the women playing throughout the Six Nations - being a rugby fan, I very much enjoyed watching that. It was a fantastic level and very professional.

Aspire have tried to encourage women’s sport through some of our sponsorship too. We sponsor equitation, which is one of few gender-free sports where everyone competes together at the same level. Likewise, we also sponsor the annual REME Cross Country Championships , where all compete together. My wife often reminds me that there wasn’t enough money put into female sports, so we like to try and help with that.

I do think the Army’s Sports Control Board and across Defence people are really making sure women get all the opportunities the men used to get, and it’s a much more level playing field now, if you’ll pardon the pun, which is really encouraging. I think we’re reaping the benefits of that, with better quality sport and more participation, which again is great to see.

For my final question, this is something I like to ask everyone and especially since you’ve been involved with Women in Defence UK since the beginning, what would you like to see Women in Defence UK doing more of in 2019 and beyond, or how we can have an even bigger impact going forwards?

It’s a good question and I think there’s been a lot done to promote gender balance. I think we really want to see women being successful and that will really be the litmus test. I want to see more and more senior 1* Officers, RSMs, and fortunately there are more and more senior, successful women coming along now. We’ve got General Sharon Nesmith for example and various other Brigadiers in the Army.

I particularly enjoyed watching the recent documentary on the Type 45 Destroyer HMS Duncan, with Captain Eleanor Stack RN, and I think things like that show you can have a very successful career as a woman in the Armed Forces, and particularly in the combat arms.

That’s what we’ve got to see, and I am looking forward to seeing it. It may be twenty years away, but I am sure we will see a woman commanding an infantry battalion - that would really show that it’s all changed. What they’ve got to do is nurture the women coming up through the ranks, keep them in service because the numbers right now are still small. And keep them coming in too. You need a decent sized pyramid to make sure these opportunities manifest themselves and that, eventually, the quality comes through as commanding officers or station commanders or captains of ships.

A lot’s been done, but we’ve got to keep at it. And one of the crucial things is a network, something I know Women in Defence UK is doing, and something you should absolutely build on, to make sure women help each other out. We don’t want inequality but positively encouraging people. Particularly, we need successful seniors to mentor and encourage others to say, look I can do this, and this is how I did it and, perhaps, this is how I dealt with my family life and children.

Ultimately, it’s defence, the Army, Aspire Defence or whoever it is that gets this bi-product of really successful women, the full range of the best quality individuals in our organisations. Ultimately, that’s what we’re all after.

That piece of demonstrating and developing talent as well is certainly something we’re trying to do a lot more of this year with our partnership with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and their Impact masterclasses for women and also the speed mentoring we’re doing. And there’s also, as you said, that mentoring development piece, as well as celebrating the incredible achievements of the women that we’ve already got and them trying to inspire others.

Thank you so much for your time Allan, fantastic talking with you!

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