AFTER a think tank highlighted Scotland’s poor export performance last week, we hear from an entrepreneur who has shown what a relatively small firm can achieve in global markets with the right vision and commitment.


Iain Macneil.



What is your business called?

Witherby Publishing Group.

Where is it based?


What does it produce?

Specialist technical, operational and navigational publications for merchant shipping.

To whom does it sell?

To the world’s fleet of merchant ships, particularly those carrying, oil, petroleum, liquefied gas or chemicals. Approximately 80 per cent of sales go overseas.

What is its turnover?

£6.5 million.

How many employees?

45 (38 in Livingston and seven in India).

When was it formed?

2008 as a result of the merger of the company I founded in 1998 (called Seamanship International) with Witherby Publishing (established 1740).

Why did you take the plunge?

During the period when I was qualifying, I thought the training and reference materials available were appalling. I felt strongly that it was worth taking a risk to do something about it - and that enthusiasm has not yet diminished!

What were you doing before you took the plunge?

After a career at sea, primarily on tankers, I had taken a position on a Floating Production Storage and Offloading platform 165 miles north east of Aberdeen with Maersk on Conoco’s McCulloch field.

How did you raise the start-up funding?

Liquidated all my unit trusts and shares. Re-mortgaged my house, took a six month mortgage holiday and took out personal loans by maxing up credit cards.

All in, I managed to put together £100,000 of my personal money. In late 2004, when my now wife joined the company, she made a similar gesture of financial faith!

What was your biggest break?

Winning a major project to develop content for Shell at around the same time as I met my wife, who was chairing an Archangel Investment company that also had Shell as a client.

What do you most enjoy about running the business?

The hands-on nature of creating the best content and reference material for the shipping industry that we can from wherever is necessary in the world.

Last month I visited Australia to work with the country’s Reef Pilots and Maritime Industry bodies to prepare safe navigation guidance for ships transiting through the Great Barrier Reef.

What are your ambitions for the firm?

As Witherbys is 277, getting it to its 300th anniversary is pretty key!

How we achieve that is equally important – we want to show it is possible to be successful while maintaining a social conscience, profitable while being an exemplary employer and ambitious while maintaining integrity.

As an employer, we provide a number of additional benefits over and above the ‘usual’ you might find. These include winter tyres, across the board medicals, access to a private GP .We constantly review the benefits we offer, always looking for options that make a real difference to people’s lives and continually open to suggestions from the staff (recent ones have included self defence classes!)

What are your five top priorities?

- We have three kids: Caitlin, Calum and Abigail. Giving them the best education that is appropriate to each of them is very important, while encouraging them to go in to jobs where they are doing something they are passionate about, is a key personal priority.

Maintaining a work/life balance, which will be best demonstrated by managing to shape the organisation to ensure it can function just as effectively if I’m not there.

Having just purchased an office that will be able to accommodate the main business for at least the next ten years, it will be important to get that fitted out correctly.

Maintenance of the strongly ethical culture that Witherbys has grown by activities such as continuing to build our profits funded Trust and by providing paid internship positions in publishing, graphics and marketing, which are so necessary for today’s youngsters looking for their first break.

Lastly… finishing ‘22nd Century Seamanship’.

What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?

While we are a publisher, ultimately our industry is shipping. Unfortunately, the shipping horse pretty much bolted over 40 years ago. We need a government that recognises the industry’s continuing importance. For Westminster, taxation concessions are required to encourage shipping to register in the UK and to compete internationally.

Sadly, with regards to Scotland, I’ve yet to meet anyone in government who is really prepared to engage with or has developed an understanding of shipping and its importance to our nation. Shipping sits fairly quietly in the background but still contributes some two per cent to the country’s GDP.

What are the most valuable lessons that you learned?

Cash is king. Conservative sales forecasts provide a safety margin that should enable you to trade through most challenges.

That working within the structured command and control hierarchy that is a ship does not necessarily prepare you well for negotiating the complicated relationship structures of your average small business!

How do you relax?

Returning home to Aviemore pretty much can’t be beaten as it’s such a great environment to relax in.

However, I still very much enjoy the freedom of getting back on the water.

In recent weeks I have dragged my wife Kat around an event in Seattle called TrawlerFest to look at boats followed by a cruise to Alaska.