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Chemical engineer Allen has solutions for drinks industry

IN this week's SME Focus, an expert in the mechanics of Scotch whisky production explains how he resolved a tricky career dilemma by going into business with his father.

PERFECT BLEND: Scott Allen says recruiting the right staff for his team has made a real difference to Allen Associates. Picture: Steve Cox
PERFECT BLEND: Scott Allen says recruiting the right staff for his team has made a real difference to Allen Associates. Picture: Steve Cox

Name: Scott Allen.

Age: 41.

What is your business called?

Allen Associates (HPE) Ltd.

Where is it based? Stirling.

What does it produce, what services does it offer?

Allen Associates is the largest Scottish-based chemical and process engineering design consultancy serving the Scotch whisky and related industries. We work mainly in the drinks, food and process industries, both in the UK and internationally, and customers range from small craft distillers to multi-national corporations.

We offer a range of professional engineering solutions and carry out studies and risk assessments to ensure clients comply with regulations. We design new processes and equipment specification to improve customer operations, and we project manage developments as well as designing and selling bespoke equipment for distilleries.

Who does it sell to?

Our client list includes Glenmorangie, Glenfarclas, Macallan, Morrison-Bowmore, Beam Global, Whyte & Mackay, Diageo, Innis and Gunn and Coca Cola. Our latest projects include the design of the new Tullamore Dew distillery in Ireland for William Grant & Sons, due to open next autumn, and the design and installation of a new spirit handling system for The Edrington Group's blending and bottling plant in Glasgow. The spirit handling system includes unloading cask-strength whisky from a tanker, blending it with other whisky, marrying it and then reducing the strength ready for bottling.

What is its turnover?

In the region of £1 million per year.

How many employees?

We have a team of six graduate chemical engineers and recently recruited a trainee Computer-Aided Design draughtsman. We also have a formal network of experienced associates who support us as required.

When was it formed?

My father Bill launched Allen Associates in 1994 as a sole proprietor business. He was a retired chemical engineer and started working with distilleries. In 1999, myself, my dad and colleague Steve Ryde took the business to limited company status and moved to the Innovation Park in Stirling in 2001.

Tragically, dad and Steve have since died and I've been running the business as sole director since 2010.

Why did you take the plunge?

I was happy to work with my dad as we always got on well with each other - we were good friends and did a lot together, going to football and hill walking. I also really liked and trusted his colleague Steve.

We talked about the possibility of working together for a few years before it actually happened. From time to time, I helped him out with design calculations and proof-checking his work when he was a sole proprietor.

I faced a dilemma which many engineers do in their career. I wanted to take on more responsibility but still loved the day-to-day hands-on buzz of design and site work. But I knew that staying with a large company would mean taking a management track in order to progress my career. So when I got the chance to become part of Allen Associates as a limited company, I knew this was the perfect opportunity to take my career in the direction I wanted but remain working in a fantastic industry.

What were you doing before you took the plunge?

After graduating as a chemical engineer from Strathclyde University, I worked with Foster-Wheeler as a design engineer in Reading. After a few years, I wanted to return to Scotland so joined ICI as a project engineer at their yeast and flavours plant in Clackmannanshire.

How did you raise the start-up funding?

At the time of going into the business with my dad, my wife and I had some savings, so those came in useful.

What was your biggest break?

Discovering Strathclyde University's graduate placement programme for final year MEng chemical engineering students as it has acted as an extended recruitment process for us. As the business grew, our new engineers were recruited after working with us on placements. This means we recruit staff we know fit in with our culture and values and it allows graduates to decide if Allen Associates is right for them. Everyone who has joined us in this way is still here and thriving.

We're also on Business Gateway's Growth Advisory programme and received support from an adviser while we developed our Iceberg Vent Cooler. The cooler helps minimise spirit loss by condensing escaping ethanol vapour for return to the vessel as condensate. Estimates suggest that the cooler could recover over 2000 litres of pure alcohol per year, which is an extremely significant recovery.

What was your worst moment?

Finding out that my dad, friend and colleague had been diagnosed with cancer.

What do you most enjoy about running the business?

Working with a great team; we are all friends as well as colleagues and that makes a huge difference in a small company. Then there is the sheer variety of the work we are asked to do and the professional satisfaction of knowing I am using the skills and knowledge from my degree allied to the experience I've gained along the way to help our clients. Travelling around Scotland to visit distilleries in some of the nicest parts of the country is not bad either.

What do you least enjoy?

When things don't go exactly as planned, dealing with difficult people who seem to be following their own agenda rather than working as a team to put things right.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned?

Just how critical having good staff is and, when you have them, making sure you keep them.

How do you relax?

My main interests are football and hill walking. I still play football with my friends once a week and take my wee boy to see his team (Dundee United) every other week. I'm a keen hill walker and when I find the time I like to get out on the hills, I've climbed about 200 Munros. I also like spending time with my family.

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