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One man’s journey from conflict to a safer future for all

Oliver Hewett - Head of Finance - SafeGroup


Oliver Hewett

6 min read

What qualities do you need to be a very good credit controller? Good with figures? Absolutely. An eye for detail? Most certainly. Kind and understanding? Are you sure?

SafeGroup’s credit controller, Safet Vukalic certainly is. It may not be a conventional strength people think of first for someone working in an accounts department.

But Safet’s journey to his position at national specialist cleaning, decontamination and waste services provider SafeGroup has been far from conventional.

Safet Vulalic - SafeGroup - Credit Controller

Holocaust memorial

He was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina. His father and brother were detained in concentration camps by Serbia during the Balkans War. Since settling in the UK he has been a volunteer for the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and Remembering Srebrenica, charity work that has contributed to him receiving, in 2020, the British Empire Medal.

Holocaust Memorial Day event
Holocaust memorial day: Safet, pictured second on the left, takes part in a Holocaust Memorial Day event

Safet has a clear belief that being decent and respectful to others is much better than being nasty and aggressive, based on deep personal experience of the damage caused by the violence of conflict.

It helps that his work for the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, and other charities, has made him an excellent communicator. He has met and chatted with Prince Charles on several occasions and is perfectly at home in the company of all types of VIPs and dignitaries.

Safet and HRH Prince of Wales
Safet pictured meeting HRH Prince of Wales

Victim support

Safet also spent ten years working for Victim Support, first as a volunteer which led to a full-time job managing a team of advisors in Merton and Sutton, in South East London. It means he is just as adept at supporting others who have also experienced huge shocks and stresses, and are suffering as a result.

Perhaps it is no wonder that Safet and his colleagues in the finance team have had significant success during 2020 in working alongside SafeGroup’s suppliers and clients to smooth the sometimes rocky path through the COVID-19 pandemic.

He says: “It’s been a challenging year for everyone. Maintaining good relations with all our stakeholders has been hugely important. Being understanding and patient has paid dividends at key points. We also have to be firm, but always fair.

“My first priority is always to talk to clients and suppliers. Understand where they’re coming from and what their challenges are. Then we can work together to solve each other’s problems. It has worked out well so far. We’re not out of the COVID-19 woods. But we have a clear idea of where we’re going. Things are positive.”

Concentration camp

There was no chance of such an enlightened approach when Safet was growing up in Prijedor, a town in Bosnia in the heart of the Balkans. He was 16 when the Bosnian War started in 1992, pitting Bosnian Serbs against Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). Safet’s family were Bosniak.

In June 1992, Serbian soldiers rounded up hundreds of Bosniak men in Prijedor. Safet’s father, Rahmo, 45, and brother, Vahid, 24, were among them. Safet would have gone with them, but his mother told him: ‘You stay at home, you’re a child.’

Rahmo, Safet, Amela 1982-3
Safet in the early 1980s, with his father, Rahmo, and sister Amela

Rahmo and Vahid were taken to a concentration camp at Keratem. Safet’s father was then taken on to a camp called Omarska, notorious as a place where inmates were executed.

Safet and his family feared the worst. But, after news reports by ITN about conditions in the camps, Safet’s father and brother were released. First Vahid in September, then Rahmo in December.

Safety in London

Vahid was allowed to return home. But the conditions of Rahmo’s release meant he had to leave Bosnia and the International Red Cross arranged for him to come to the UK as a refugee.

With the war continuing to rage, the rest of the Vukalic family found refuge in Zagreb, where Vahid was working as a volunteer lorry driver, taking food and medicine into Prijedor.

Over the following months, Rahmo worked tirelessly with the Red Cross to reunite the family. In December 1993, Safet and his older sister arrived in the UK, to stay with their father in a hostel in London.

Autumn 1993 - Safet, sister Amela, mother Mina
Safet with his mother, Mina, and sister, Amela, in autumn 1993, just before Safet travelled to London to join his father

In June 1994, his mother, Mina, and younger sister, Amela, were given permission to join them.

After working for Victim Support, Safet worked for a laundry. Thanks to a City & Guilds accountancy qualification, he soon found himself in the accounts and purchasing department.

Negotiating skills

On January 6th 2020 he was made redundant. The laundry had sold all its accounts and wound up its operations. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Safet spent the rest of the year looking for another job, with little luck, until SafeGroup called.

He says: “I was quite despondent. But for some reason, with SafeGroup, I felt it was meant to be. Perhaps it was the name, like mine. I was interviewed just before Christmas and I started on January 5th, just about a year to the day since I had lost my last job. It just felt right.”

It turned out to be an ideal appointment. Safet was just the right person to have on the team at that time. His negotiating skills have been put to good use, helping to guide SafeGroup, clients and suppliers alike through the pandemic.

New opportunities

Safet is also enjoying working with colleagues on developing new opportunities for the business as the COVID-19 crisis has raised awareness about the critical importance of hygiene protection in the workplace.

He says: “I believe this company has great potential. These are exciting times for SafeGroup and I am very glad I am here to support the process of developing our new opportunities.”

Safet is also pleased that SafeGroup helps him continue his voluntary work with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and with Remembering Srebrenica, a UK charity that educates people about an act of genocide in 1995, as the Bosnian War was reaching its end, in which more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys were murdered.

Educating Young People (and teachers) about genocide - Royal Wootton Bassett Academy annual event
Never forget – Safet gives a talk to students and teachers about genocide at a secondary school in Wiltshire

He regularly gives talks all over the UK for schools, colleges, community organisations, charities and agencies about his experiences, the damage caused by human conflict, and the acts of genocides they can trigger, even in modern times.

Safet says: “I and my family have come a long way in a short space of time, we are positive about the future but that’s because we don’t forget what’s happened in the past. We must always learn.”

Oliver Hewett - Head of Finance - SafeGroup
About the author

Oliver Hewett

Oliver is responsible for the day-to-day management of all financial matters at SafeGroup. He has worked in finance and accountancy since 2003. Oliver has a degree in economics and accountancy from Bristol University and is a chartered accountant. Before joining SafeGroup, Oliver worked for 12 years in the investment banking industry in London in financial, operational and strategic business roles. Oliver is tasked with ensuring SafeGroup’s financial management supports and enables the company’s growth and future plans. Outside work, Oliver is a keen golfer and supporter of Tottenham Hotspur FC.

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