IN this week's SME Focus a green buildings specialist explains how he has used skills honed working for shipbuilding and electronics firms in the last century to grow a business that numbers some of the biggest names in modern retailing among its clients.
Name: Iain Gibb.
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What is your business called?
Lateral Technologies and Solutions Limited.
Where is it based? Bellshill.
What does it produce, what services does it offer?
The company is a building services consultancy company specialising in energy performance. We aim to save companies money by reducing energy consumption and to allow them to reduce their carbon footprint.
Who does it sell to?
We work with a number of blue-chip clients across the retail, leisure and local government sectors.
What is its turnover?
How many employees? 18
When was it formed? 1993
Why did you take the plunge?
I became disillusioned with what I was doing and started exploring the potential of establishing my own consultancy. I wanted to do things differently, to provide what I felt was an innovative approach to building services.
I came up with the name Lateral Technologies & Solutions Ltd because I didn't want to generally focus on engineering - we wanted to emphasise our flexibility, our wide range of skills, and commitment to being on the leading edge of industry technology. At that time, the industry was going through a massive change - technology, including the development of the building energy management system, was moving forward at an incredible rate, but we felt few had the know-how to take full advantage of those important developments. We saw a gap in the market and decided to go for it.
What were you doing before you took the plunge?
I was born and bred in Edinburgh, attending Daniel Stewart's College, before completing my education at Napier University. I worked with a mechanical and electrical engineering consultant for a period doing design. I realised fairly quickly that although I could design the systems I lacked a full understanding of how they worked and interfaced with each other, so I left and spent some years commissioning the systems I had previously been designing. This proved to be an invaluable learning curve before I moved on to a new role elsewhere in commissioning management.
How did you raise the start-up funding?
I went to my father - a civil engineer who designed bridges and roads - for support, which he gave me. My father and I registered the company in October 1993 and I started to look for contracts that December.
I also needed a partner who would share my vision for the business and complement my skill base. I found that in Brian Paterson, who was a former colleague and who joined me in February 1994.
What was your biggest break?
We started in a recession, and HCI Clydebank hospital was our first major contract. Laing O'Rourke, the construction company, needed my experience to go in and push it on. We also started working for Motorola at one of the electronics giant's manufacturing sites in Bathgate. Both projects were bankers with the steady income we needed at the time to establish the business and provide a platform to grow.
Then it was on to Kvaerner Govan where we were asked to be part of the design team for the innovative Sea Launch Commander satellite launch ship project. We had never done ships before, but one of my friends had been made redundant, so I said, 'How do you fancy doing ships?' He is still with us and leads up our mechanical design team. We had a good group in place.
It was one of the most exciting jobs the Govan shipyard had seen in years. The team travelled to St Petersburg where the Russian equipment was installed and commissioned, then she was delivered on to San Diego - it really was a one-of-a-kind project to work on.
We continue to have good fortune up to the present day in being able to work on major projects with the likes of John Lewis and Waitrose, creating energy efficient stores and supermarkets. Our work has also seen us partnering with a number of local authorities on the refurbishment of public buildings including the Manchester Town Hall Extension and Central Library.
What was your worst moment?
After the Kvaerner project, we experienced a period of rapid growth, but we became too big, too quickly around 1997, and it was unsustainable. We were also working on ships in France, so a lot of work was remote rather than being in the UK. We got into a bad place in terms of cash flow, but luckily, our banking partner, Natwest, was supportive. If it had not been for them, we probably would have gone down altogether. My brother also helped, for which I will always be grateful.
It was a valuable lesson, so we tend to maintain a relatively small and lean team, with retained expertise. We prefer to work at a manageable level so that we can deliver on our promises. We also have a very flat structure which we find very advantageous. We can react quicker because we're smaller, and that allows us to see the whole picture. We feel the bigger companies can't manoeuvre nearly as quickly.
What do you most enjoy about running the business?
Being in the thick of it, working alongside our team.
What do you least enjoy?
When running a company you have to work long hours and in my case be abroad for long periods. This has a big impact on family life. However my wife has always been very supportive and I comfort myself with the fact that I did it to provide a better future for her and my three children.Running a business can also be difficult on many levels with all the little headaches that you just didn't see coming, but every day is different and we enjoy overcoming the challenges that projects throw up.
What are your ambitions for the firm? To stay abreast of the latest technology - being on a par with the big boys or being ahead is important to us.
What are your top priorities?
Training; producing what we would like to produce; maintaining our reputation; attempting to not do things the way they've been done before - we always try to go off the radar to look for a better solution; being a leader and developing partnerships with like-minded businesses.
What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?
Both governments need a clear and concise, long-term energy strategy that fully details their approach to energy conservation. Due to the length of parliaments, too often governments don't look far enough ahead.
The Government channels funding to support economic development across Scotland but I feel this is very sector specific. As a consultancy we have found it challenging to get any level of grants to support our growth objectives. If you are starting up a consultancy, for instance, you have nowhere to go. We've found that very hard at times.
What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?
I have a very strong work ethic - I believe that what you put in, you get back out; that if you just sit back, then it won't happen. I believe that once you have the work, you have to produce. I've also learnt that you don't run away from a problem.
How do you relax?
I am just a family man - I have three grown-up children and still love spending time with them. It's about striking a balance which can be difficult. Rugby is also a real passion of mine. I used to be an Edinburgh season ticket holder, but I think watching the games made me more stressed than work! These days I still try to make sure I never miss an international. I used to play at school, and having eventually gained a place in the 2nd XV, played against the two Scottish legends Finlay Calder and Jim Calder, though I should point out that I definitely didn't give them any problems!