By Kristy Dorsey

The virtue of adversity – even when it’s self-inflicted – is fortitude. Rebounding from hard knocks is tough, but as David McCutcheon can testify, it may also lead to greater things.

Employed as a sales representative for what was then known as Parceline, Mr McCutcheon took some time off in the summer of 1990 to go to the World Cup in Italy. By his own account, he “took a few liberties”, stayed longer than he should have, and upon his return he was sacked.

Still early in his career and with few financial commitments, he quickly decided to strike out on his own. Spotting a gap in the market for “hot shots” – the same-day delivery of smaller, more time-sensitive goods – he set up Bullet Express which today employs 110 people generating annual revenues of approximately £14 million.

“What I thought was the worst day of my life, it was actually the best,” he says. “It sounds crazy, but that is what happened.”

He was quickly joined by his cousin, co-founder and joint chief executive Gary Smith. Close friends since boyhood, the pair used a £2,000 government grant to secure two vans and started out by delivering food labels for their first customer, Glasgow-based packaging group Macfarlane.

HeraldScotland: David McCutcheon, Joint CEO; John McKail, MD; Gary Smith, Joint CEO, Bullet Express outside new logistics storage facility David McCutcheon, Joint CEO; John McKail, MD; Gary Smith, Joint CEO, Bullet Express outside new logistics storage facility

Macfarlane remains part of a customer base that has grown to cover the health, retail, grocery, aerospace and industrial sectors. In addition to deliveries and collections, Bullet Express has also expanded into storage and freight forwarding.

Though money was tight in the early days, the two “just put our heads down” and got on with putting whatever cash and time they had back into the business. Mr McCutcheon said they also benefitted from taking a more businesslike approach than their competitors.

“I always describe it as a taxi service, but moving freight instead of people,” he said. “That is really what we were.

“But the courier industry was pretty slap-dash. The level of professionalism was really quite terrible.

“Right from the beginning, Gary and I wore proper uniforms, we had liveried vans, and once we had made a delivery we would call the client and tell them their goods had been delivered, and who had signed for them. It all made a real difference.”

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Rather than out on the road, Mr McCutcheon is now overseeing the fit-out of the company’s newest Glasgow storage facility at the former Sterling Furniture store on London Road. Due to be operational by the end of April, it joins existing Bullet Express facilities in Bothwell and Baillieston and will boost the company’s pallet storage capacity by nearly a quarter to 26,000 pallets.

Bullet Express was forced to move fast on the seven-figure investment after coming under pressure from a major existing client that had taken up all the company’s existing spare capacity, and then needed more. Other clients were also asking for additional storage space.

Along with its proximity “just 300 yards” from the M74 interchange, the other advantage of the former Sterling Furniture store was the height of the existing building, which at 12.5 metres allows for racked storage up to six pallets high. As rates charged for storage space are fairly static, a facility must be large enough to generate a sufficient return on investment.

Asked about a potential shortage of warehouse and industrial space, which has been in higher demand than office and commercial property through the pandemic, Mr McCutcheon said: “I don’t think there is a short supply of warehouses, but there is a shortage of warehouses of the right size. You have got to look at the building and consider the revenue streams that it can generate.”

Bullet Express started noticing an increase in demand for storage during the run-up to Brexit, with customers stockpiling goods to ease any potential disruptions after the close of the transition period on December 31 of last year. However, it was the onset of the pandemic, which has generated a 40 per cent surge in online shopping, that has pushed the need for logistics storage facilities through the roof.

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This has put city centre sites at a premium, as consumers and businesses have come to expect rapid turnaround on their online orders.

“At the moment, people are demanding deliveries very, very quickly,” Mr McCutcheon said. “That has been changed by the pandemic, which means the goods need to be as close as possible to the customers.”

Mr McCutcheon said future expansion will likely be towards Edinburgh, as Bullet Express has been winning new work on the eastern side of the country.

The company has not been left completely unscathed by the economic crisis caused by Covid. With some clients such as those in the aerospace industry facing serious difficulties, Bullet Express has at times had up to 20% of its staff on furlough, although none have been made redundant.

“Whereas some clients dropped off, other rocketed,” Mr McCutcheon said. “Thankfully we are involved with a lot of industries that have been able to work throughout the pandemic.”

Q&A

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

Fortunately a couple of weeks before the first Covid lockdown I enjoyed a three-week trip to Australia, superb country. But my favourite is Spain near Torrevieja where I have a place and enjoy the local culture and golf.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

As a boy, like many I wanted to be a footballer – in my case for Rangers FC. However that moved on to wanting to be a police officer – sadly I failed the test. I would have loved all the investigation and catching people out. I still love Columbo to this day for the same reasons.

What was your biggest break in business?

We had many but I would reckon getting sacked when I did, as that was just the right time to get a courier business going and I was ready to go on my own. Also joining the Entrepreneurial Exchange (now Entrepreneurial Scotland). They helped guide me in the crucial growing years providing first class, hands-on experience in all issues from finance to HR.

What was your worst moment in business?

The worst moment is always when you lose a good employee which all businesses deal with.

Business-wise it was when our former ops team decided to jump ship en masse. However they misjudged not only myself and my business partner, Gary, but our customers’ loyalty and we saw them off.

Who do you most admire and why?

In Scotland it’s business people like Sir Tom Hunter, Lord Haughey and Charan Gill, who I fortunately know very well and from whom I’ve had great personal help over the years. Sir Tom got me involved in many charities, one being Cash for Kids which we have supported for over 25 years, and another supporting a school in Malawi. We took the school from 25 kids to over 1,000. It’s been a great place to visit for many reasons, some inspiring and some humbling.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

Recently I have read Tyson Furey’s book, The Furious Method. But my favourites are the Richard Branson books. Love them all and listen to snippets on audiobooks now and again when I need a business fuel top-up.