From soldier to surveyor

Ex-armed forces personnel have many of the skills that lend themselves to the surveying sector – Modus speaks to six people who have made the transition from military to the built environment


  • Stuart Watson

30 January 2023

Silhouette of solider with cityscape backdrop in cut out

Illustration by Matt Murphy

Certain industries, including finance and security, have long-established links with the military, employing former soldiers in need of new career paths when they become civilians.

Modus met six people who have made a successful transition from the military to a career in the built environment, to find out how they did it.

Ed Treliving MRICS: tank commander to local surveying business

Surveying could and should be doing more to attract people from ex-military backgrounds, says Ed Treliving.

“How do we solve our recruiting problems and diversify? Part of the answer is fairly obvious: there are almost 150,000 people in the British military and around 10% of them leave each year. Veterans make good employees and are good people to be around. I find it frustrating that there's not a proven, easy path [into the construction sector] like there is into risk management or financial services, for example.”

As a tank commander, Treliving says he “spent most of my 20s rattling around hot dusty places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria”. He also served as an intelligence officer – “everything I learned about studying a population and influencing them is what people in civilian life call marketing and advertising” – and as a planning officer, organising the army’s response to the Ebola crisis in Africa.

After leaving the forces seven years ago, he undertook an MBA in construction and real estate, became chartered, and followed his father into surveying. They are now 50-50 partners in Sheffords, a general practice residential and commercial surveying firm based in Sevenoaks, Kent, which employs two other surveyors and four support staff.

The two vocations have much in common, he believes. “The armed forces tend to be there when people are in the most difficult circumstances, and surveyors are normally there at challenging points in people’s lives, whether that's moving or extending a home or a business. In both professions you need to be able to express yourself clearly to anyone and everyone, and sometimes have the moral courage to take difficult decisions.”

Johnny Dunford FRICS: chief of staff to managing a corporate property portfolio

At the zenith of his 18-year career as an infantry officer Johnny Dunford was chief of staff for a battlegroup of nearly 1,000 troops, organising their operations in Basra during the second Gulf War. In the UK he planned domestic deployments to deal with crises including the foot-and-mouth outbreak as well as the firemen’s strike.

When he decided it was time for a second career, surveying was a natural choice. He had studied urban estate management at university, and a call to RICS revealed, to his “surprise and delight”, that it still covered many of the professional competencies required. After completing a postgraduate course, he took the APC, and his surveying career encompassed DTZ, BNP Paribas Real Estate and three years as global commercial property director at RICS. He is also a director at Handy Heroes, an ex-military construction company, and was a co-creator of Fixxa, an Uber-style property maintenance platform, which foundered during the pandemic.

Today, he is an international property surveyor at G4S, looking after the security firm’s 1,500 properties around the world. “Military to property is a quite a well-trodden route because a lot of the skills read across,” he says. “They are both people-based, quite practical, dealing with big bits of equipment, often outdoors, and they are both fairly innovative.”

He advises ex-service personnel thinking of making the career transition to make contact with those who have been through the same experience.

“People in the military and ex-military speak the same language, so if someone says something is a really good idea, it probably is, and they won’t be trying to sell you something. Reach out. Don't be shy. There are plenty of people who will help.”

Ed Treliving headshot

“Veterans make good employees and are good people to be around” Ed Treliving MRICS, tank commander to surveyor

Johnny Dunford headshot

“Military and property careers are both people-based, quite practical and dealing with big bits of equipment” Johnny Dunford FRICS, former military chief of staff now at G4S

Kate Wheway: Royal Marines musician to the housebuilding industry

Aged 16, and a talented musician on the clarinet, viola, and piano, Kate Wheway saw an advert in a music magazine which offered the tantalising prospect of playing professionally and travelling the world. Leaving her native Derby for Portsmouth, she studied for three years at the Royal Marines School of Music in Portsmouth. Her military music career took her to Australia, Sri Lanka, America and Canada, encompassed military and marching bands, chamber quartets and orchestras, and included playing at events such as the Edinburgh Tattoo, the 2012 Olympic medal parade, and Margaret Thatcher’s funeral.

She moved to Rosyth, Fife, where the Band of the Royal Marines Scotland is based but, after 14 years in the military, she felt in need of a different challenge. Fortunately, she was offered the opportunity to learn new skills while retaining her post with the Royal Marines.

“I was looking after the treasury for the band, and I was into numbers and quite frugal,” she recalls, “so I completed a diploma in commercial management and quantity surveying at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh while I still had the benefit of being in the forces, and I also did work experience with a local QS in Dunfermline.”

Her first job as a graduate QS at social-housing provider Robertson Partnership Homes was a steep learning curve. “Within four months, the senior QS left the business. And due to staffing issues, I was left on my own to run a 20-house site, which I delivered, and we came out with a profit,” says Wheway. “When you’re in the military you get used to meeting deadlines, adapting and overcoming.”

She is now an assistant QS with housebuilder Taylor Wimpey East Scotland, running two sites commercially without assistance, and is pursuing RICS membership.

Gabriel Boakye: logistics to infrastructure QS

As a schoolboy in Ghana, Gabriel Boakye was proud to walk to school with his books in the military backpack once carried by his grandfather, a British Commonwealth soldier in the Second World War. They also shared a birthday.

“In my culture, we say that’s reincarnation, so when I joined up as a soldier my parents weren’t surprised,” he says.

Boakye worked for his uncle’s construction business before taking the opportunity to join the Royal Logistics Corps. Based at the army’s port in Southampton, he served for seven years, overseeing the loading and unloading of military equipment at destinations around the world. In 2015 he took the “difficult decision” to leave because he and his wife wanted to start a family.

Initially, he pursued a career in the logistics industry, but found himself yearning for the experience of being outside on a construction site, watching a project progress. A friend put him in touch with Buildforce, a community interest company set up and run by construction firms, which mentors service leavers and veterans to help them take up roles in the industry.

Having already completed a degree in Maritime Studies, he studied for a master’s degree in quantity surveying while learning on the job, then progressed into civil engineering projects, in 2021 landing a “dream job” as a quantity surveyor (QS) on the HS2 rail project. He is now a senior QS at Kier, working on major infrastructure projects, and has signed up for the APC.

He has also fulfilled an ambition to join the Royal Engineers, serving part-time as a reservist in the army specialist units.

“In the long-term, I would like to put my experience to use by helping young people from underprivileged backgrounds into construction,” he says.

Kate Wheway headshot

“When you’re in the military you get used to meeting deadlines, adapting and overcoming” Kate Wheway, Royal Marines musician to assistant quantity surveyor

Gabriel Boayke headshot

“I would like to help young people from underprivileged backgrounds into construction” Gabriel Boakye, logistics to infrastructure QS

Francis Lapare headshot

“It's about organising a group of people to achieve an outcome. That was the same in the military as it is in businesses” Francis Laparé: Canadian infantry officer to project manager

Francis Laparé: Canadian infantry officer to project manager

“If you ask someone in the army what they do, there’s good odds that they will tell you they make plans,” says Francis Laparé. “Plans in the military enable you to be agile and to be coordinated. They allow very big organisations to turn on a dime and be highly effective and uncertain, in complex environments.”

For the former Canadian infantry platoon commander, taking ownership of a task and applying a proactive, can-do mindset is the crucial skill that he has carried over into his second career as a real estate project manager. “That’s definitely a military trait,” he says.

As a captain serving in the 3rd battalion of the Royal 22nd Regiment, his army career included two deployments in Afghanistan, in Kabul in 2004 and Kandahar in 2009. Commanding 36 soldiers on counter-insurgency missions was a “challenging” and “intense” time, he says, “but you definitely felt like you were making a difference. And it was a unique experience where I got to take on a lot of responsibility at a young age.”

For the last 18 months of his service, he was doing headquarters work, but decided that it was not for him. A strong interest in real estate led him to complete a degree in building sciences, and then a career in project management. Starting his career at restaurant chain McDonald’s, project managing restaurant schemes, he moved to a real estate investment trust. And then on to the real estate division of PSP Investments, one of Canada’s largest pension investment managers, where he is a senior advisor.

“We oversee and have governance on development projects we do with partners in cities around the world,” he says. “The language is different. But it's about organising a group of people to achieve an outcome. And that was the same in the military as it is in businesses.”

Gagan Thapa headshot

“Vigilance is like an army family because most of the senior and mid-level managers are also ex-military” Gagan Thapa: Gurkha signaller to on-site security

Rafael Jacobs headshot

“Having somebody with experience of putting themselves in positions of risk gives you genuine confidence at the site” Rafael Jacobs MRICS, director at Lee Baron

Gagan Thapa: signaller to on-site security

Two years ago, commercial property management firm, Lee Baron, was seeking a security solution for a number of large, empty logistics buildings it was managing on behalf of a property fund, Ergo. One suggestion was to use a firm called Vigilance, which employs former army personnel, many from the famous Brigade of Gurkhas, as live-in guards to protect properties from squatting, theft and vandalism.

During the 2000s, the Gurkhas campaigned to be granted the same right of residence in the UK as other British and Commonwealth soldiers, a battle which they eventually won in 2009. Rafael Jacobs MRICS, a director at Lee Baron, says that the social impact of employing former Gurkhas was initially a strong motivation but, having witnessed them at work, his firm is unlikely to employ another provider.

“It's often hard to mix professional security with having a good attitude, but the Gurkhas are possibly the politest people I've ever met,” he says. “And having somebody with experience of putting themselves in positions of risk gives you genuine confidence at the site.”

Vigilance was founded in 2008, and most of its management and staff are ex-military. Head of delivery, Gagan Thapa, spent 22 years as a signaller in the Gurkhas, retiring in 2012. He initially took up a career in telecoms, before being persuaded by an ex-military colleague to join Vigilance in 2014. He was tempted to switch careers partly because it was a managerial position, but also because of the culture of the company.

“Vigilance is like an army family because most of the senior and mid-level managers are also ex-military, so communication is easy, and in many things we follow an army tradition. Even our colleagues who were not in the army enjoy that.”

The business provides the older generation of Gurkhas with employment and accommodation in the UK, he adds. It also undertakes charitable activities in support of veterans and Nepalese communities. Thapa was involved in a project to build a school in Nepal, and recently travelled to Everest Base Camp on a Brompton bike in aid of the Gurkha Welfare Trust.


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