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Lessons in leadership from forensic search and rescue specialist Peter Faulding

30 August 2022
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It was during the anti roads protests of the nineties that Peter Faulding, CEO of Specialist Group International (SGI) forged his reputation as the go to person to safely remove environmental protesters from extremely dangerous positions they put themselves into, perched high in trees and entombed into deep man made tunnels.

The qualities that he showed during these times  - calmness, empathy,  problem solving, mental sharpness and unwavering professionalism - have become the cornerstones of his Dorking-based business and offer lessons when it comes to leading in today's business world.

Peter said: "If you smile at someone and call them by their name it is much easier to get their cooperation

"Protesters know they are going to be removed and all they want is to be heard and treated with respect and dignity."

Over the years the protesters and Peter have forged a mutual understanding based on trust and respect. SGI have maintained a 100 percent safety record in all of their operations.

Peter successfully dug the infamous Swampy out of an underground network of tunnels at the Honiton Bypass protests in 1996, with the two still keeping in touch to this day.

He said: "I spent nine days underground with Swampy and built a rapport with him by being calm and passing him cups of tea whilst I worked with my team to remove him and the other protesters.

DEVELOPING BUSINESS REPUTATION

When Peter started his rescue company, Specialist Group International, in 1995, the business initially struggled to gain traction. However, his work at the Newbury Bypass in 1996 and then with Swampy and his fellow protesters a year later gave him a direct link to the UK Government and he became a key adviser on how protests should be managed and leads this specialist field today.

Peter now lives on a remote farm in West Sussex with his wife, daughter and his menagerie of pet sheep, alpacas, lamas, ducks, chickens pigs, emus and dogs.

ABOUT SPECIALIST GROUP INTERNATIONAL

He said: "From the age of 5, I grew up exploring the disused mines under Merstham with my Dad John. Later on, the fire departments would call upon my expertise and local knowledge to assist in the rescue of lost persons in the mines and eventually I was able to turn my childhood pastime into a business.

"I remember going to the bank for a £1,500 overdraft and being told you are never going to get anywhere doing this sort of business - rescuing people. Within a year, our turnover went up to £1.9m.

"I sat on the Home Office working group after Newbury and Honiton and the business quickly expanded as we were the only team who could deal with determined protesters in tunnels.

Peter with his father

THE GROWTH OF THE COMPANY

The business has grown exponentially over the past 27 years. It now has a vast array of cutting-edge equipment, vehicles, boats and even a helicopter. The base has expanded to 6 industrial units and employs over 50 people.  SGI long ago also expanded beyond protester removal to providing a wide variety of specialist services including forensic search and specialist underwater search capability, recovering drowning victims and evidence for police forces around the UK.

Specialist Group International (SGI) team members on a training excercise

Peter has become a leading forensic search specialist working on some of Britain’s biggest missing person cases, recovering evidence and human remains from the most remote locations that has gone undetected for years.

Peter has been a guest of the US Secret service and advised the FBI in Qauntico in Virgina, and overseas police forces.

DIVERSITY OF WORK

Peter puts remaining calm under pressure and problem solving as the most important skills to have when working in his line of work.

The keen helicopter pilot said: "I have always been a problem solver and can think quickly on my feet.

“My strengths aren’t in writing business plans or reports, but when we are beside a river which might have a car in it with a person inside it, I can quickly form a plan.

"We might not know where the car is, the river is fast flowing and we only have one chance to choose the correct search equipment to find the car, recover the person inside and keep the divers safe.

DEALING WITH DIFFICULT SITUATIONS

Peter's professionalism and passion for adventure was instilled in him from an early age from his upbringing and a six-year spell in the Parachute Regiment reserve.

"My Dad taught me the value of hard work, perseverance and never giving up. That discipline has followed me in business and my experience with the Parachute Regiment taught me never to give up whatever is thrown at you.

VALUE OF A TEAM

Building a tight team in any business environment is tough; however building one which will be put under acute pressure is an even tougher task.

Word of mouth is key to Peter's recruitment strategy with many staff members recruited from the armed forces, police or fire service.

He said: "We look for people who are team players with a varied skill set, with a sense of calmness, empathy, loyalty, as well as mental and physical fitness to get on with the job and the resilience you need when it gets tough or emotional.

"We are often in perilous situations, underwater, on a boat, or swinging from a tower or tree and things can go wrong quickly. They have to have the ability to work in any weather at sea or on land and be able to deal with trauma especially when facing families that have lost loved ones."

With a high functioning team in place and on-call 24/7 to respond to incidents around the country, how is focus and team spirit maintained?

Peter says that his close-knit team continually train to keep their skills sharp and they enjoy their varied work, everyday is different. 

He said: "Anyone who doesn’t genuinely enjoy the work or want to be a part of a close team doesn’t last long. There is a strong culture of positivity and the team all support each other at work and in their personal lives. 

"I lead from the front and work with the team closely. I set extremely high standards of my team and they respect me for it. I insist on polished boots, uniforms and spotless vehicles and equipment. 

“I have an excellent team. They are very skilled, experienced and motivated to do the best job they can do. Some days are exciting and fun, other days are tough and emotional and some days such as equipment maintenance or cleaning days are more mundane. My team just gets on with whatever needs to be done with a positive can-do attitude. Nobody is too good to wash up a coffee mug or sweep the car park. 

DEVELOPING A POSITIVE WHEN DEALING WITH TRAGEDY

Peter says that growing positives from tragedy is how the team deal with traumatic events and he set up the Lucas Dobson Water Safety Campaign. Peter delivers free life jackets to schools and gives a water safety talk. He delivers the lifejackets using his helicopter at his own expense.

The project was set up following the death of six-year-old Lucas when he fell into the River Kent while out fishing with his father. He was not wearing a lifejacket and quickly went under the surface.

Peter said: "I witness so much tragedy and I wanted to develop a positive out of it and prevent this from happening again. It’s heart-breaking recovering drowning victims and it’s especially tough when it is a child.

"By providing free life jackets and promoting water safety awareness to  school kids, we hope to make a real difference. I am also developing a water safety video aimed at 15-16 year olds as the average age of drowning is 15 or 16. They are the ones who are most likely to jump in rivers."

MENTAL HEALTH IN BUSINESS

Mental health in the workplace has gained prominence in recent years with many employers now taking an active role in improving the mental and physical wellbeing of their staff.

Although Peter has had his fair share of ups and downs in his life, he has never suffered from mental health issues but is acutely aware of the devastating impact it can have on some people.

He said: "Sometimes there is a specific reason for it, such as bereavement, financial, health or relationship issues and other times, there is just no explanation.

"My advice is to get up each day with a purpose, eat well, take exercise, do not procrastinate or waste time looking at your phone. There is always a solution to life’s problems but you must be prepared and open to work for it. There are no free rides but hard work and a positive attitude will always pay off.

"Get off social media and computer games, do something you enjoy and keep getting fresh air and sunshine. Each day starts with me doing a fast walk around my farm with my dogs, often formulating ‘to do’ lists in my head and completing all my important phone calls that I need to make that day in the process. I rarely use email for my communication, preferring the quicker, more personable approach of voice to voice contact. An hour later, my exercise is done, I have a plan for the day and some crucial work has been completed.  "

Peters book “What Lies Beneath”, is a gripping account of his life and details the harrowing work that he undertakes. It is being publish by Pan McMillian on 2nd February 2023.

Peter Faulding

Stephen Emerson is the Managing Editor of The Business Magazine and is responsible for the publication's print publications and online properties including the newly launched Biz News websites in Hampshire and Dorset.

Stephen has been a journalist for 20 years and has worked at local, regional and national publications and led a team which made The Scotsman website one of the fastest growing news sites in the UK with over eight million monthly users.

He has a keen interest in technology, property and corporate finance and telling the stories of the people behind the successful firms in these sectors.

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