How I Beat The Odds: Alan McLeish - QTS

Alan McLeish, founder of South Lanarkshire-based rail maintenance firm QTS, on starting out with £300 borrowed from his mum and creating a £60m business.

by Elizabeth Anderson
Last Updated: 03 Dec 2013

Nearly 20 years ago, I asked my mum if I could borrow £300 to start my own business. I had three wee kids at the time and she said to me: 'Son, are you sure?' But I knew I had to give it a go - I'd spent the past year lying awake at night thinking I could do it.

I used the money to buy a couple of chainsaws and a transit van, starting as a tree surgeon doing jobs with local councils and the railways. For the first few years, I was working day shifts, getting a bit of sleep and then doing a night shift.

Now we mainly do railway maintenance, which includes everything from platform building to clearing trees from overhead lines. QTS employs 400 people directly and we expect to turn over £64m next year.

But, even now, it's difficult to say that I've made it. There have been some painful decisions along the way. The business used to be much broader, also covering construction and civil engineering, but they were haemorrhaging money and we eventually closed them in 2009. We could have just folded them but, morally, I couldn't do it. We continued with the contracts and made sure everybody got paid before closing them and concentrating on rail maintenance.

I've always paid my suppliers on time or early. That's important to me because I know what it's like to struggle. When I first started QTS, my old employers didn't pay me for a job for three months. They knew that was going to really put me under pressure, and I had to borrow money from friends and family.

I was so disappointed because I looked on them as friends. Because of that, QTS has always been financed by me and grown organically. I've never had investors and have had no loans from the bank. I can sleep at night knowing I'm not in debt to anyone.

I left school at 16 with no O levels. I worked as a labourer with a landscaping company and later as a supervisor at a forestry contracting company before starting QTS aged 30. I was a very unconfident 16 year-old. I once had to go into head office to talk about my tax payments and it was the most excruciating 10 minutes of my life. Everyone ignored me and when they did speak to me, it was as if I'd stood in something.

I must admit after I got out I had a good cry. From that point on, I've always been clear that I'd never treat anybody that way. You do come across some fairly horrible people in this industry. But I have a lot of mortgages resting on me, so you have to treat people with the respect they don't really deserve if you want the work.

I do miss getting my hands dirty. When I'm stuck in the office I start to question whether I have actually contributed anything to the company that day. We're mainly a UK-focused business, although we're looking at opportunities in the Far East now.

My proudest moment was buying my mum a wee bungalow in Troon on the west coast of Scotland. At least she saw her £300 was well invested.

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