Job becomes matter of self preservation

The Rotters advice for flying solo

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Economists seem determined to find evidence that the employment boom of the last few years has ended, but signs are that the labour market in Scotland is in good shape.

However, although the unemployment rate remains at record lows, tough times in sectors such as retail and haulage have resulted in growing numbers of Scots losing their jobs.

In this week's SME Focus, we hear from one man who bounced back from the bitter blow of redundancy by going into business, ultimately in competition with the firm that laid him off.

For all the satisfactions enjoyed in running your own show, Les Meikle warns that people who decide to go solo have to be prepared for serious slog.

However, hopefuls may be surprised to find that many seasoned entrepreneurs are happy to give greenhorns the invaluable benefit of their experience.

Name: Les Meikle.
Age: 54.

What is your business called?
Wise Property Care.

Where is it based?
Barrhead, Renfrewshire.

What does it produce/what services does it offer?
We preserve Scotland's building heritage for the future by carrying out "health checks" on old homes, and eradicating dry rot, wet rot and rising damp. A subsidiary also damp-proofs basements.

To whom does it sell?
Anybody who owns older properties, from castles to one-bedroom tenements. We deal directly with property owners, or via intermediaries such as estate agents and solicitors.

What is its turnover?
£6m this year, up 26% on last year.

How many employees?
There are 90 throughout Scotland.

When was it formed?
September 1996.

Why did you take the plunge?
Absolute necessity. I was the successful Scottish managing director for a UK-wide property care company, and confidently expected to spend the rest of my working life there.

Then the company was bought over by Americans, who decided to bring in their own management team. At the age of 43, I was made redundant - out on my ear with a wife and two young kids to support. I was devastated that I could lose my job and lifestyle on somebody else's whim, but determined I would bounce back.

The choice was simple, take another job at a lower salary, or start my own business. Then I heard from a contact that a company in the sector called Timberwise had gone bust. My contact was buying the English end of the business, and wondered if I was interested in the Scottish end. It was the opportunity I needed, and Wise Property Care was born.

How did you raise the start-up funding?
My wife Janey and I put in all our own money, including my redundancy payment, and borrowed some from our parents, who were not rich.

I owe both them and Janey big thanks. Our house was security on an overdraft from the bank, which is a big step to take when you have young children. There was a terrible last-minute hitch, when it suddenly emerged that VAT would have to be paid on the deal. It took all of our running capital and every penny we had to pay the VAT.

It is no exaggeration to say that if our car had been in a car park, we couldn't have paid to get it out. I inherited eight members of staff, and somehow managed to pay them at the end of the first month by going round and pulling in everything Timberwise was owed.

What was your biggest break?
I think the biggest break has yet to happen, with the introduction by the Scottish Government on December 1 this year of home reports - essentially putting the legal onus on home sellers to provide potential buyers with a fully-documented breakdown of the state of their home.

As a result, intermediaries like estate agents will probably advise clients to get an experienced specialist to check for problems like rising damp and dry rot. It is the biggest change in the property business in decades, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us.

What were you doing before you took the plunge?
I'd spent my whole working life in property care, and, as said above, I was the Scottish boss of a UK property care company until they made me redundant. We are now twice the size of that company in Scotland, a fact that gives me no end of pleasure.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned?
I was confident that I probably knew the property care sector better than anyone in Scotland, but it also became quickly apparent that the ultimate key to the success of my own company was hard work, and lots of it.

From having a white collar job before, I was suddenly in my early 40s having to carry out surveys again - literally crawling under floorboards and carrying out inspections. I worked 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. That's my lesson to all young people going into business. You might think you know the formula for success, but there is no substitute for working hard.

What was your worst moment?
The worst moment was finding I was no longer wanted by a company I had played a major role in making successful. Nothing comes close. The thought that you may have to sell your home, downsize, give up membership of places you enjoy using and so on is a real wake-up call. But now I realise that I was done a favour. Without that moment, I wouldn't have had all the great times since.

What do you most enjoy about running the business?
The ability to make your own decisions. I am completely accountable, my wife and I are the only two shareholders, and I can make decisions quickly. It makes us nimble and fleet of foot. We can make decisions and be moving forward when others are still deliberating. That has been key to our success.

What do you least enjoy?
The sleepless nights, whether it's thinking about cash, customers, employees or what colour to paint the vans, what I would give for a straight eight hours sleep. That's where I envy my teenage kids and my wife. They can sleep for Scotland.

What is your biggest bugbear?
The amount of money we give to the taxman, and the lack of flexibility in the tax system. The government simply doesn't understand how hard it can be for SMEs to pay their bills on time. The first five years of a SME's life are vital, and it's often a struggle for survival as business retention rates show. A VAT bill can put you out of business and cost jobs, and small businesses have to be allowed more time to pay in certain circumstances.

What are your ambitions for the firm?
We are Scotland's second-biggest property care company, and we want to be the biggest. We are not far behind, and we will be number one by some distance inside the next three years. I have no doubt about that.

What are your top priorities?
Our work is mainly in the residential property market, so it would be foolish to pretend that any downturn in the market, or a situation where people find it more difficult to get mortgages, wouldn't affect companies in our sector. We must compensate for that by becoming more efficient in what we do, and winning a bigger share of the market via our ongoing programme of developing relationships with intermediaries, including estate agents and solicitors.

The top priority is ensuring that we make full use of the home reports opportunity. We have taken nothing out of the business, and have built up a war chest of £1.5m to fund our moves in this direction. This includes the extension of our strategic partnerships programme with estate agents and solicitors, and ongoing acquisitions. We are also staffing up and will soon be moving to a £750,000 new-build office in Barrhead.

What single thing would most help?
We have to reduce the fragmentation of our sector, and that is the aim of our acquisitions. There are too many small companies who can't offer customers the security of long-term guarantees on their work. We have to make sure acquisition targets fit in with our ethos, but that is made easier by the fact that I trained many of the people who own these companies.

What could the Westminster and/or Scottish Governments do that would most help?

They must both do more to foster the entrepreneurial spirit in our young people. Young people must be shown that starting a business is an achievable life choice, and they have to be given the confidence to do that. This message has to be present in our schools, universities and colleges.

Successful business people also have a responsibility to go out and do that, and I mentor two young companies. I'm also a member of the Entrepreneurial Exchange, which I found incredibly helpful early on. Everybody, even big names like Tom Hunter, always had plenty of time for you. It showed me that I was not alone, and that other people had the same problems as I had. It also showed me what success was like, and I was determined to have that.

How do you relax?
I like to eat nice food, drink nice wine ... and watch Clyde Football Club. I'm born and bred in Rutherglen, and have been a Clyde supporter since away back in their Shawfield days. I'm an executive member at Broadwood, and also help out in other ways where possible. I've been asked to take my involvement further, and that's something that might happen someday.