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25 April 2004
Sunday Herald
Why strong leadership can't win; Ex-army officer John Strachan's sights are now on a 1m turnover for his team-building firm, Maximillion. But first, says Arthur MacMillan, he had to put his own unit in order

WHEN John Strachan quit the Army in 1989 he had little idea what to do next. He had enjoyed five years' service as an officer in the Royal Highland Fusiliers but sensed it was time to get out. 'I just knew that it was not going to be a long-term thing for me,' says Strachan, noting that he had seen several colleagues drift into unemployment and struggle to find a career after life in the armed forces.

His first business venture took him into paintball, the leisure pursuit personified by images of aggressive Rambo wannabes. In 1989, the game was only beginning to take off in Scotland, but within the year 16 companies had saturated the market and Strachan knew he would have to diversify.

The 39-year-old now hopes he has found his niche - as managing director of Maximillion Event Management, based in Kirknewton, West Lothian.

The company employs eight full-time staff and 30 part-time events organisers. Maximillion's events range from team-building exercises for small to medium -sized businesses who want to improve their effectiveness, to large corporate events for employees of companies who have hit their latest sales targets.

'Most of our events are fairly inclusive and many are used by companies to incentivise their employees and enhance team relationships through training,' says Strachan, who used to be responsible for the selection and recruitment of potential officers at the Scottish Infantry Division's training depot at Glencorse.

In the beginning, at least, Maximillion drew heavily on its founder's army experience. 'I was used to organising command tasks and leadership exercises so, basically, I plagiarised and adapted those challenges and started doing multi-activity days for businesses, concentrating on participation rather than spectator events.' he says.

Although Maximillion can count HBOS, JP Morgan and Unilever among its clients, developing the business has not been without setbacks.

Strachan, who joined the Army direct from school unlike most officers, who attend university beforehand. He says: 'I was very green and didn't have any idea how to run a business. My managerial skills were poor to say the least and my style of leadership was pretty autocratic, which didn't endear me to the staff.'

With turnover static at 400,000, the business's performance fluctuated between occasional profits and disappointing losses, typical of the territory many businesses found themselves in after 1992's Black Wednesday. But it was not until 1998 that Strachan finally took charge at Maximillion.

'I had a wake-up call that my business had a long-term future and I started to look at learning vehicles to help overcome the business's and my own shortcomings,' he says.

An Investors In People business improvement programme, sponsored by Scottish Enterprise, was the first step. The four-month long Marketing Advance scheme followed, helping Strachan to 'consolidate' his knowledge and long-term plans for promoting the business.

' Maximillion had a very reactive sales force and we were not at all proactive at going to businesses and saying 'this is what we do'. But the courses taught me a lot about reaching out to your customer base,' he says. 'Our customers were not convinced we were as good at what we do as we thought we were - and that opened my eyes.'

Business development training soon identified that the company's focus on outdoor events was a fundamental weakness in its strategy. Until then it hadn't crossed Strachan's mind that many of the events he organised were weather dependent and costly to organise. 'It was not a profitable area of our business,' he says. 'By moving indoor many events became more cost-effective. We also re-branded the business with a very clear product range to articulate what we did for our customers.'

Since then gross profit has risen by 20%. Maximillion's turnover was 900,000 in 2003 and Strachan is confident that it will break the (pounds) 1 million barrier for the first time when the company's financial year ends in November.

Another area of Maximillion's business is 'needs analysis', where a company has identified a specific problem that is proving detrimental to their core business.

Strachan says: 'Good companies invest in people to generate a return, and if something is going wrong which is stopping that from happening we can intervene. It might involve us interviewing, confidentially, every single member of staff in a business to find out what is at the root of the problem.'

Naming a prominent drinks maker that Maximillion worked with last year, Strachan points out how such a scheme was used to identify weaknesses in the company's output.

He says: 'The company had very ambitious performance targets and they wanted more cohesion within teams at different production sites. So we ran a series of 27 events across different sites to find out what the issues were.'

Maximillion organised 210 events last year. Although the company has a database of 5000 customers its core business, says Strachan, is dependent on 100 key clients from which repeat business is generated. That, however, has its own challenges. 'A company will not want an identical performance of what we have done for them before, so we are constantly looking at trends and working with consultants to deliver something new,' says Strachan.

One large Scottish employer who uses Maximillion's services says: 'Team building events are a chance for colleagues to get together in a fun, team environment and can ultimately give a company the edge over its competitors. For two areas that work closely together but rarely meet up, this is an ideal opportunity for them to get to know each other on a personal basis, share information and build stronger working relationships.'

Maximillion's future growth is likely to come about by expanding geographically or by acquisition. 'Somewhere down south is a possibility,' says Strachan, 'or we might look at buying over another business.'

The 'active' participation time of the company's events has ranged from 10 minutes to 10 days but although Strachan says greater team building and more conference activity are 'live options' it is too early to decide which could prove the most lucrative. 'Events is quite in vogue at the moment and they tend to be good for repeat business,' he says. Maximillion's biggest ever pay day - 250,000 - came after organising a series of 16 events in five days for the Young Presidents' Organisation in 2002.

'It took the best part of a year to organise and involved some expensive planning but it helped us win the best UK hospitality event at the Corporate Entertainment Awards,' says Strachan, who appointed a non-executive director last year to further develop his plans for the business.

He is also mindful that a poor balance sheet held the business back in the past, something that, vitally, has been overcome. Strachan says: 'The next year will be very important for us. I am quite restless as a person but we have consolidated our position by concentrating on the services that we offer and making the most of them. But I have an appetite for positive change and if we are to grow the business that is what we will have to deliver.'

Mini profile

Company: Maximillion

Formed: 1989

Managing Director: John Strachan

Employees: 8 full-time; 30 part-time

Turnover: 900,000

Sector: Corporate entertainment and training

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