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MacRitchie helping to open up paths to a brighter future

THERE are those of us who require eight hours' sleep a night, and then there are people like Iain MacRitchie.

People who, like Donald Trump and Bill Clinton - his fellow "sleepless elite" - get by on almost half that. "I sleep five hours a night," MacRitchie admits to me over drinks at The Blythswood Hotel in Glasgow - although the look on his face tells me it is closer to four. "But I sleep fine," he smiles. "I've got loads of energy."

It is certainly one way to explain how MacRitchie juggles his many roles. Husband, father, and entrepreneur; the Glaswegian is all these things, but he is also something of a "transformation specialist" who turns around companies - those that are failing and those that can do better. And he's good at it.

Having advised more than 100 companies to date, he most recently finished a three-year stint as chairman of fashion chain Hobbs, just one of 15 such senior positions MacRitchie, 49, has held in his career so far.

Under his guidance, companies see an average six-fold increase in profits. When he oversaw the £75 million purchase of sports nutrition brand Maximuscle, becoming the CEO and then chairman, he doubled profits in three years, resulting in the sale of the company for £162m.

MacRitchie has his fingers in lots of business pies and, in his role as chairman of the UK Institute for Turnaround and Transformation, even has the power to influence legislation. Last year, the University of Strathclyde, his alma mater, gave him an honorary doctorate.

But MacRitchie is also a passionate philanthropist, and it's for this reason we are meeting today, to discuss his most ambitious and meaningful endeavour to date, a Glasgow-based project that matches mentors with young people from challenging backgrounds in schools across the city's east end. He explains it's all about creating pathways for these children - pathways back into the school system, into higher education, into jobs and, ultimately, into a better life. Eventually, he wants the programme rolled out nationwide. You don't have a goal like that by lying in your bed for 12 hours a night.

But then MacRitchie is also motivated, committed and resilient - three words that form not only the initials for his company's name (MCR Holdings) and current project (MCR Pathways), but also equate to his ethos for life. His own pathway to success was down to a mix of these qualities, as well as pure happenstance. Raised in the west end of Glasgow by his parents, who were from Lewis, he was influenced by his entrepreneur father and realised early on he wanted to do his own thing rather than be employed. He played professional football for a short while but when that didn't work out, he became aimless. He got into university by the skin of his teeth and "winged it for the first while", almost getting chucked out at one point. Turning it around and fresh from his degree in marketing and business, he joined a small company in East Kilbride that specialised in printing plastic labels for industrial applications.

"They wanted to find areas in which they could potentially grow," he recalls. "That's when I started using a little imagination." With the company's support, he helped pioneer a new coating technology. "And it was quite a breakthrough. I tested it in my kitchen on the Crow Road [in Glasgow]. The material was unique worldwide. All of a sudden, it had been passed by the US and Canadian authorities and we got inquiries from all over the world."

It was a pivotal moment. "You can be aimless, you can underachieve in certain areas - because I felt I had - but it's finding that button. Everybody's got one. You just need to take the chance."

MacRitchie did. Within five years, he drove the company's profitable international expansion, becoming managing director at 28 and winning 20 international innovation and quality awards before the company was sold to a UK plc in 1994. It was then with that plc that MacRitchie developed his knack for turning around companies. So if his life was a reality TV show, what would it be? The Opportunity Maker? The Transformation Man?

"The ideal title would be The Pathfinder. I help open one up, drive the bus through and allow lots of others to follow. Simple."

MacRitchie makes business relatable, frequently talking in analogies. When discussing his role in transforming companies, he relates it to football: "When I start off with a company, I'm on the pitch. Then, quickly, I'm on the sidelines coaching. Then I'm up in the stand. If they need me, I'm on the pitch; but if I'm continually coming on the pitch, something's not right. I should be out of the grounds and the team still wins. But I'll always be watching on the telly."

It's about personal relationships, he says. "I can relate to most people. I think it's a Glaswegian thing, I don't think it's specific to me. It's in the Glaswegian DNA, an ability to get on with anybody, irrespective of top or bottom level."

MacRitchie's home is now in Buckinghamshire with his wife Karen and children Rebecca, 15, Jonathan, 13, and Jennifer, eight, but deciding to take the MCR Pathways Programme to his home city was a no-brainer. "I'm still here mentally and spiritually. Glasgow has given me everything I've ever needed."

Now in a position of financial choice, MacRitchie wanted to give back. While he admits money was a motivator in the beginning, he needed to do more than that. "My parents had a strong Christian ethic, so I was always brought up that if you get some good, put a little back."

But the "top-down philanthropic" approach didn't work and throwing money at the problem was unfulfilling. "So I applied the same philosophies as in my professional life," he says.

Having spent four years at St Andrews secondary school in Carntyne with his project, he found mentoring had the most profound effect. "These kids don't have adult continuity. I've met some who have been placed [in care] in excess of 20 times. They are programmed not to build trusting relationships. Mentoring can be very simple. It's just a listening ear, somebody to tell them what's possible and give advice. It might not happen in the first week or month but, down the track, mentoring can transform a young person's outcomes. "I could get emotional thinking about it," he smiles. "It's when you see the difference that something simple makes. It's about human potential. With 'looked after' children, it's the fact their situation is through no fault of their own that freaks me out."

It doesn't escape MacRitchie's notice we're discussing this in a plush hotel. More than half (56%) of Glasgow's young people live in 20% of the most deprived areas in Scotland, he tells me. This makes them four times more likely to be unemployed than those living in the least deprived 20% and three times less likely to go into higher education. "They have no visibility of the pathway and so the aspiration dies. And the constraints...this is where I've been quite emotionally charged. We need to be clear about the pathway for these kids. It's just not acceptable."

MacRitchie insists while he is the driving force behind the programme, the credit goes to the institutions and individuals involved. "I'm not creating anything that doesn't exist - I'm just shining torches on it. I want to go from 25 to 2500 mentors. If we can affect one young person, that's fantastic."

I wonder if MacRitchie ever feels like quitting business. After all, he must be well-off. "Yes, I could - but I wouldn't," he replies. "Never will." In the meantime, family and football keep him balanced. He's had eight knee operations to keep playing.

Life, he reflects, has been "a bit of luck and destiny", adding: "I learned early on I wasn't the best but if I stuck to it..." He trails off. But it boils down to focus, he whispers. "Go the extra mile. I didn't do as well at school as I should have. I didn't get into the university course I wanted. And as much as I was playing football with Clyde and St Mirren Boys' Club, I wasn't the best and I knew that. I made up for it by commitment. I've had constant hits and misses but nothing I couldn't overcome."

For more information on being a mentor, go here

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