Veteran-owned businesses: Alan Toner, Eco Walks Tours

Veteran Alan Toner founded EcoWalks Tours in 2019, driven by what he’d seen during his service. He shares how his military experience helps him in his business.

At a glance:

  • Mosman RSL sub-Branch Vice President Alan Toner had served with the Army in Nauru, East Timor and Iraq, gaining training and experience as a marine specialist. 
  • After his transition out of Defence, Alan was ready to contribute more to the betterment of the world, valuing the environment and connections with people.
  • He founded EcoWalks Tours in late 2019, hosting walking tours around Sydney Harbour.
  • Alan uses his Army training in every facet of his business – from understanding logistics, systems, policies and procedures, marketing and risk management, right through to nonverbal communication skills.

After WWI, veterans Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness were given an assignment: survey an air race across northern Australia. As they drove more than 2,000km setting up supply dumps for the competitors, they developed the idea that would become Qantas.

Peter Liston, co-founder of the Veteran Community Business Chamber, wants the organisation to help inspire that entrepreneurial mindset in veterans today.

“We’ll know we’ve succeeded in that goal when we have developed an entrepreneur ecosystem that not only nurtures and inspires the seed of entrepreneurship from within the military community, but also helps develop solid business acumen and creates funding models so businesses can access the capital and support they need to grow,” Liston says.

In Australia, there are numerous examples of excellent veteran-founded businesses and, over the summer, we’re sharing their stories – what inspired the founders, how they started their own businesses, how they’ve built them and, of course, why their experience as veterans makes these founders a force to be reckoned with. 

Second in the series: Alan Toner, founder of EcoWalks Tours.

Founded by Mosman RSL sub-Branch Vice President Alan Toner in late 2019, EcoWalks Tours operates walking tours around Sydney Harbour.

Alan had served in the Army from 2000 to 2006, including in Nauru, East Timor and Iraq, and as a Reservist from 2009 to 2015. He’d trained and served in a marine specialist role, involved in logistics, humanitarian aid and security patrols. It all prompted him to think deeply about his own values and how he might build his own future.

“In my time in the Army, I saw a lot of environmental degradation,” Alan says. “I saw people who were disenfranchised and huge inequalities around the world. I got to a point at about 25 where I saw myself being able to contribute more to the betterment of the world. My values were shaped around the environment and a connection to people.”


Post-transition career building

After transitioning out, Alan trained as a high school teacher and spent time in the Whitsundays, putting his Army watercraft qualifications to good use and learning the ins and outs of the tourism business. 

Soon, he realised he could combine his knowledge of military history and fieldcraft with his passion for the environment, his education training, and the management skills he learned in the Army.

“I couldn’t have achieved this without my Army experience,” he says. “It has been really important to understand logistics, for example.”

The aspects of Army training that Alan has used in building his own business range from systems, policies and procedures, right through to the ‘softer’ people skills. 

“I’ve used a lot of those frameworks in developing marketing plans, and in risk management,” Alan says. “Even the way I meet and greet people, my nonverbal communication skills, were learned in the Army. Finally, just having the courage to give it a go – that is a great attribute I learned in the Army.”


The value of intelligence

Peter Liston, co-founder of the Veteran Community Business Chamber, says that there are enormously valuable traits and skills that come out of a military career. 

“The number one consistent carryover between military service and business is character and integrity. That is core to being a successful business owner. So much is based on trust,” Peter says.

“Then there are skills around operations, planning, how to manage people and get the best out of team members — these are all absolutely transferable to business.

“Finally, consider the value of intelligence,” he says, referring to the experience veterans have turning disparate data points into actionable information. “Of knowing the battle space, of analysing sensitive information. These principles are key to understanding the business marketplace and making good decisions.”


Growing veteran-owned businesses

EcoWalks Tours operates a program of educational tours that’s accessible, and student- and veteran-friendly. As Alan guides groups around the Harbour and shares information on the biodiversity and natural landmarks, he also tells stories of the Harbour’s part in recent military history – of Japanese submarines entering the harbour in WWII and of ‘Australia’s Colonel Kurtz’ Captain Barry Peterson, who trained at Middle Head Barracks. 

During lockdown periods, Alan found a new market in virtual tours. When school groups and tourists were unable to stroll the scenic trails, Alan ran live virtual tours for corporate groups in the USA, India and elsewhere.

“I have images of this growing into something significant,” Alan says. “I would like EcoWalks Tours to become a household name when people think of visiting Sydney Harbour.”

If Peter and the Veteran Community Business Chamber get their way, this growth will not only be achievable, it will be just about unavoidable.  


Join us on 10 March to see a panel of veteran entrepreneurs discuss how they started their own businesses, how they’re continuing to grow those businesses, and their tips for success. Register now for ‘How to build skills for business and employment’ using the form below.

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