Aberdonian businessman Kevin Coll takes time out to talk to The Herald about the challenges of running your own business, single parenting, and the need for a "successful energy narrative".

What is your business called, and when was it set up?

Solab IT Services was formed in 1991 and Onboard Tracker was set up in 2014.

What do you do?

Solab is a digital company providing managed IT support services, while Onboard Tracker focuses on crew management software solutions that track in excess of 110,000 energy, renewables and marine workers in more than 8,000 sites across 100-plus countries.

Who are your clients?

Highly regulated energy, renewable, marine, drilling and oil and gas support companies. They include companies such as Harbour Energy, Subsea 7, Boskalis, Archer, Semco, and many more.

What is your annual turnover, and how many people do you employ?

We have 38 members of staff generating revenues of £6 million per year.

Why did you start up your own business?

Before Solab, I was working for another IT company which went bust. I hadn’t been paid for two months and the company car was being taken away whilst I was on holiday!

I had been doing the selling for the company and it was going well, but mismanagement killed it. The easy thing would have been to take a well-paid sales job with a large IT company, but I had always wanted to do something for myself – my parents ran their own bakery business in Laurencekirk, Aberdeenshire, so I was brought up in an entrepreneurial environment. I’d built up a lot of good clients and friends through my job and when I started asking some of them if they would support me in doing my own thing, the response was hugely positive and set the ball rolling.

In the years after Solab was established, we were asked numerous times to write a system that would support operations in the energy sector to better understand where people were and to get them through training audits. The most obvious solution to make it the best it could be was to write our own, so that’s what we did and, financially, Solab’s success made Onboard Tracker possible.

Its first incarnation did incredibly well but more and more clients wanted bespoke solutions so we ended up with lots of different versions we couldn’t scale. We needed to build a new, affordable SaaS system to take the market by storm and give existing clients, and ourselves, scalability, so that's what we did.

What do you least enjoy?

Legal contracts, accounting and admin are essential, but I’d much rather be out selling.

What are your ambitions for the firm?

I have a great team and it’s important to me that the business, and the people in it, grow towards their full potential, in harmony. We want to become the number one digital transformation company in Scotland, whilst expanding our overseas presence. We are forging ahead with plans to do just that before the end of the year.

What single thing would most help?

Energy security is key to the UK and, like it or not, oil and gas has a large part to play. However, we have government and educational narratives and policies which completely undermine investment in the industry and cast the energy companies as pantomime villains.

Young people are being discouraged to join the sector, yet they are the very ones who can turn it greener from the inside out. Scotland and the UK are renowned throughout the world for science, engineering and technology but we are at serious risk of losing STEM expertise, and our competitive advantages, unless people are encouraged back into the energy industry. The companies they’d work for now have the will, money, resources and technology to make going green a commercial viability - what they won’t have is a workforce of the future. 

Let’s work together to build a successful energy narrative and policy that doesn’t exclude the hugely important existing supply chain that supports over 200,000 jobs in the UK.

What is the most valuable lesson you have learned?

Being well established doesn’t mean you can’t have the enthusiasm, fun and passion of a start-up.

Where do you find yourself most at ease?

I enjoy holidays and I’d really like to be able to do more travelling. I enjoy scuba diving (in warm waters), with Lombok in Indonesia being a firm favourite as my brother lives out that way. I also love skiing, mainly in Austria and Scotland, and I play a bit of tennis and golf. I’ve always said that between skiing, diving and golfing, you really do get to see some of the world’s most beautiful places.

If you weren’t in your current role, what job would you most fancy?

I enjoy mentoring so most likely non-exec work, with some saloon car racing on the side!

What phrase or quotation has inspired you the most?

Your eyes are your merchant.

What is the best book you have ever read?  Why is it the best?

I always loved Lord of the Rings. Pure escapism.

What has been your most challenging moment in life or business?

Realising that world domination was going to have to wait until my kids grew up! 

Juggling the needs of a growing business and being a single father of three was hard, but my children needed to come first before anything and everything else. My priority was creating and nurturing relationships with my children, so I couldn’t do meetings during school runs, did very little in the way of networking events outside hours, and had to limit any business travel.

I’m the original hybrid worker with laptop and phone in hand and have been flexi working for more than 25 years. Thankfully, the digital industry is one that enabled this. As a result I think I was able to avoid some of the stereotypes of a male business owner and I think my own experiences have made me a better, and more understanding, employer.

What do you now know that you wish you had known when starting out in your career?

That I’m not actually Superman and I can’t do everything. Building a team of amazing people around me, who are much better at their jobs than I could ever be, has been a revelation over the years.