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SBE18 Speaker Sessions: Alan McLeish

 
How did you get the idea to start QTS and what had you done before that?

I had always aspired to be a footballer but after that dream ended with an injury, I started working a seasonal gardening job with a company called Mitchell & Struthers. I really enjoyed the physical labour and working outside. Then, I worked with a company called The Economic Forestry Group. I took on the job as a labourer and after a few years, I had a new boss come in who saw potential in me. By the time I was 24, I was married with three young children under five, living in a council house so I was keen to progress and was grateful of the opportunities he gave to me, including being able to go to college.

I trained and qualified as a tree surgeon before progressing to becoming a site manager and then a contracts manager – one of the youngest in the UK at the time. I stayed with them for 14 years until in 1988, the company was bought by Booker and they merged the companies and I was made redundant. Some of the management from EFG were starting up their own business, so I started to work for them as a contractor on the railways.


I had been wrestling with the decision to go out on my own. It was a big decision, especially since I had a family relying on me. I’d go to sleep thinking ‘you can do this, of course you can’ to waking up in the morning in a cold sweat, fear replacing the confidence of the night before with a series of ‘but what if’s’ circling in my head. So, one day, I just made the decision and took a risk. My mum lent me £300 and QTS was born.

How have the challenges that you faced in the early days of set up shaped the way you do business?
 
In my first job as a seasonal gardener, I had a defining moment that definitely shaped how I run my business. Aged only 17, I’d gone into the office at Mitchell & Struthers with a query about my payslip. I was quite shy, so it took a lot for me to pluck up the courage to go in and speak to the office staff. My courage was rewarded by the women at the desk being so rude to me and humiliated me. I was so embarrassed, and, in that moment, I vowed that I would never treat anyone the way I had just been treated.

What’s been the biggest challenge to achieving success and how did you overcome it?
 
Taking QTS from a sole trader business to a limited company. Moving to a limited company had its difficulties. While it helped us in a positive light with Network Rail, it didn’t help our favour with the banks. We’d gone from being their best customer to a liability overnight. No one would lend to us because of the limited liability – they were happy to lend when knew they could take everything I owned, but when we changed status, our relationships with the banks changed too. This meant we had to dissolve part of our company but my dad always taught me the value of paying what you owe, and to be able to have a clear conscience and the ability to look people in the eye, knowing that you don’t have anything to feel guilty about.

We offered all employees within those divisions the opportunity to move to the rail sector before we ceased these operations and made sure that all of the debt we owed had been cleared. We had about 30% of the staff transfer to rail and some of those guys are still with QTS today. To do this, I had to take out a loan facility with the bank because they wouldn’t give me an overdraft. Everything I’d worked for, I put on the line – my house, my pension, every single thing. But I did it because I did not want to fail, not for me or my family. So I believed in myself, I believed in my team and I believed that if we stuck to what we were good at, we would continue on and be successful again.

What is on the horizon for QTS?
 
We’re in a very interesting and exciting chapter in the life of QTS at the moment. The business was acquired by Renew Holdings back in May of this year, so we’re looking forward to continuing to grow the business and working alongside the Renew team.

How do you see the Scottish economy changing the next few years?

If you could name just one key element to building a successful business, what would it be?
Building and maintaining good relationships.

What is your talk about?
 
In my talk, I’m going to touch on my own personal journey from arborist to philanthropist. Starting back from my early days and the beginning of QTS, to overseeing its growth and its sale, plus why I believe success in business should be aligned with giving back to worthy causes.

Why do you feel it’s so important to be a philanthropist and give back?
 
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to have people who believed in me and who have helped me along the way – that’s why I believe it’s important to give back to the local community and the communities that our work touches. Sometimes, all it takes a helping hand to give you the boost you need. I’m particularly passionate about young people in sport, given my own footballing aspirations when I was boy.

Why would you recommend business owners and professionals attend the Scottish Business Exhibition?
 
Building a business can be lonely at times, especially when you are just starting out, so sometimes it’s just nice to hear you are not alone and others have had the same issues or frustrations as you that they have managed to overcome. Having the opportunity to attend the show and meet other likeminded people is definitely something to take advantage of.
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