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Warnock planning many more years at helm of IRW Systems

Ian Warnock is the Paisley-based computing and electronics guru who has made a bigger contribution than most Scots to the development of our private and public sector economies over three decades.

BIG CONTRIBUTION: Software guru and former lecturer Ian Warnock has written two best-selling books and leads a team of high-level software engineers. Picture: Mark Mainz
BIG CONTRIBUTION: Software guru and former lecturer Ian Warnock has written two best-selling books and leads a team of high-level software engineers. Picture: Mark Mainz

The former university lecturer and consultant at Strathclyde Institute, who has written two best-selling technical books on manufacturing excellence, is also founder of a leading-edge software company, which has transformed many organisations and now plans a three-year expansion to double turnover and jobs.

IRW Systems has a roster of gold-chip clients, from Nato and the NHS to Schlumberger, BAE Systems and Babcock, and from ScottishPower to a raft of owner-managed businesses in Scotland.

Its 30-strong team of high-level software engineers outguns the teams of far bigger global competitors.

"I know we punch above our weight," says the unassuming founder. "The fact we are working with very significant businesses says a lot about a team of talented people who have to be able to work and articulate at that level."

Seven years ago, he rescued IRW from an ill-fated and short-lived takeover by vanished Highlands IT group Albanet, reforming the business with the backing of Aberdeen Asset Management, then buying them out in 2009 to restore his near-90% shareholding.

A keen racing yachtsman, the 58-year-old Mr Warnock has no intention of leaving the helm to cash in just yet.

"I am keen to stay involved for a good period," he says.

Born in Edinburgh, raised in Glasgow and educated at Strathclyde University, within three years of starting work at British Telecom, the young graduate was lecturing at Inverness, then Glenrothes, on the fast-changing world of electronics. Next, he became a DTI consultant on applying computing and software to business, while developing a unique expertise in programmable controllers. "They drive everything from underground rail systems to steelworks," Mr Warnock explains. "I was early into that area and so was Paisley (now West of Scotland) University, and they asked me to become a lecturer for the Microelectronics Education and Development Centre, a Scottish centre for excellence. I was asked to write a book, which became a technical best-seller, but I didn't see myself as a technical writer - I saw the future as being involved in delivering solutions to business."

Mr Warnock became senior consultant at the ground-breaking Strathclyde Institute, working with companies around the UK and Europe, while completing an MSc at Strathclyde in industrial computing and automation .

One of the clients, Hussman Refrigeration, eventually headhunted the Scot to mastermind the modernisation of its UK technology. "It was so successful that it was the only time in my life I have flown first-class with BA, when they flew us to America," he recalls. It was the catalyst for the high-flier, then 38, to start doing it for himself. "There weren't many providers out there who could offer a custom solution - I felt there was a real gap there - and going back to my own background, learning about software solutions for business, I knew a lot of the work was in creating software."

IRW began as a three-man start-up in Paisley, but Mr Warnock hedged his bets by simultaneously accepting an interim directorship at busmaker Walter Alexander, departing on its sale by Mayflower, then writing his technical sequel, entitled Manufacturing and Business Excellence.

"We gradually grew the team, and only when the business was there," he says. The firm's reputation grew steadily on the back of projects such as the Scottish Property Network for the Strathclyde region, and an unlikely piece of blue-sky technology involving curtains. "We developed a system for Texstyle World which saved them about 20% on manufacturing costs, Marks & Spencer had nothing like it and it took them about four years to catch up."

He goes on: "Historically, a lot of our business was purely word of mouth - we never really advertised - but we then developed market-leading expertise on how to market ourselves on the internet."

The firm's track record, alongside promotional events in Scotland and London, attracted the likes of Nato. Using Microsoft SharePoint, where IRW has the partner status normally reserved for the giants, it has developed a shipping centre website to help Nato combat piracy around the world. "It has to do with logging and reporting information from a multitude of organisations about suspected piracy, managing and sharing that data with public and military organisations," the founder explains.

Another SharePoint project saw IRW help the British Library develop an online portal for use by the public, and an expertise that is exported around the world.

ScottishPower, Babcock, BAE Systems and even Edinburgh's trams have benefited from the IRW effect, with tram managers TIE badly needing a document management system, Mr Warnock recalls: "The project may not have been an economic success but I think it would have been a lot worse without all the information systems."

He adds: "We are very responsive and deliver quickly...our way in to the Student Loans Company was when a much larger provider said they couldn't deliver the required system in the timescale - we delivered in less time and on budget and got some praise from a Scottish minister for that."

When the financial crash came, IRW was lightly exposed to the sector and was making inroads into oil and gas, and the NHS. Mr Warnock says: "From the health service through to private businesses, it is about finding where there are bottlenecks and looking at the root causes of slowdowns and inefficiencies."

Mobile applications for use in the field have been high on the firm's agenda since 2000, giving it a competitive edge in enabling the likes of Glasgow-based McCurrach to offer market-leading sales and marketing resources, or Ayrshire-based Land Engineering to manage its mobile gritting teams in the UK.

The only brake on IRW's growth may be local skills, Mr Warnock admits. "The universities at the moment are still producing graduates who cover a general syllabus, but they will probably need three or four years of skill development to bring them to our level. But our turnover is very low, through the way we both value and reward our staff."

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