After eight years of military life, Williamson called time on his Army career in 1995. The transition to civilian life was a difficult one. Despite being a skilled operations officer with experience of leading teams of soldiers in the most challenging environments, he struggled to find employment.
"For months it was a huge stress," he says. "When I left, I had no idea what I wanted. I kept coming across companies that said I had no experience of the commercial world."
In the end, it was Tesco that saw past Williamson's lack of retail experience and gave him the opportunity to prove himself. He joined as a trading manager at the Elmers End store in Beckenham, Kent, and within two years had been promoted to store manager.
Based on the positive experience of Williamson and other fellow ex-military recruits, Tesco this summer pioneered a scheme to recruit more ex-military personnel . The scheme helps Army veterans adjust to life on civvy street, and allows Tesco to benefit from the skills, commitment and training instilled in military personnel.
Working with the Careers Transition Partnership and the Ministry of Defence, Tesco has so far recruited more than 30 ex-Army, Royal Navy and RAF personnel under the scheme.
"People leaving the armed forces offer us a new and exciting source of talent with many of the strengths and qualities we value," says Hayley Tatum, personnel director at Tesco.
Unlike progression up the military food chain, there are no timetables restricting promotion until a certain number of years have been served. If anything, the Tesco model offers greater opportunity for career progression. "It is more meritocratic," says Williamson. "That's what I love about it."
There are many transferable skills between the two careers, he says. "You can deal with extreme stress, so you can understand why the smallest thing might get blown out of proportion," he says. There are also similarities in the attention to detail required for both jobs. "Some people can't understand why someone would spend hours polishing their boots. At Tesco it's about seeing the importance of small details like getting the shelf-edge labels right. If you think that is unimportant, you shouldn't be in retail."
Rachel Howarth has also reaped the rewards of Tesco's military personnel scheme. She was an RAF officer for nearly six years, specialising in fuel and transport. She now works at Tesco's head office as personnel manager for corporate and legal affairs, having worked in a variety of roles at Tesco, initially as a store-level customer services manager.
Howarth enjoyed the physical and mental challenges posed by the military, but wanted a career that would allow her to balance work with bringing up her two small children. "Although there are undoubtedly some women who have done that successfully in the services, there aren't many role models of senior-ranking females who have managed to combine work and family," she says. "I look at Tesco and there are lots of examples. In the Air Force I couldn't see a path for me to achieve what I wanted to at work and at home. It is far more difficult in a traditional organisation where those role models don't exist."
In the RAF, Howarth worked in logistics. During the first Gulf War she managed the logistics and supply chain to and from personnel in the region. It is a role she thinks has served her well in her second career. "You are tested mentally and physically in terms of your ability to cope with situations under stress. You have to continue to be a good leader, despite what is going on around you, and make sure you are leading your team in the right way and remaining focused on what you are trying to deliver," she says.
Paul Jackson is another ex-military man at Tesco. As an Army captain specialising in logistics, his role as a shift manager at Tesco's Chesterfield distribution centre comes naturally.
"We need to ensure the goods go to the right store, at the right time, and that is pretty much like the Army," he says. "My responsibility was to ensure the front line troops got the right piece of equipment, at the right time, in the right place, and that is similar to Tesco. On my shift I manage 75 to 120 personnel at one time. We are very tight-knit, we are focused, well-trained and we have developed into a fantastic team that provides the goods on the day."
Jackson had a long and fruitful career in the Army, serving for 24 years and progressing from soldier to commissioned officer. He left the Army in December 2007 and was determined to quickly find a second career. "Being 40 plus years of age and with the current climate on jobs, I was worried," he says. "But what kept me positive was the skills I brought with me from the Army and the quality of leadership. We are driven, we are loyal, we have some fantastic management skills we have grown up with and had embedded into us, and we love a challenge. I was a little bit apprehensive, but I thrived on the challenge."
He first became aware of the Tesco scheme after attending a careers fair in Leeds run by the Career Transition Partnership. It was here he met Linda Avis, who works for Tesco and inducts all new ex-military recruits. It was through Avis, of whom Jackson and Williamson both speak warmly, that he secured a month's trial at the Chesterfield distribution centre.
"I was gobsmacked I got offered a job so quickly," he says, "but I think that is testament to the qualities ex-soldiers bring. It is hard work because it is a learning curve, learning the commercial side rather than the business end of a conflict, but I have thoroughly enjoyed it."
Jackson has recently passed a suitability assessment to become a distribution centre general manager. "Within 12 months I hope to become an operations manager, and within two years hopefully a general manager."
For Williamson, in addition to a successful second career, his role at Tesco has given him back a family life he was missing so dearly in the Army.
"Going home every night and spending time with my family is a constant delight. That feeling never wears off."