The Argyll economy could best be described as inert, with low levels of entrepreneurship, modest ambition, a high level of public sector employment and substantial service costs to be met.
This makes the examples of the driving businesses – the ambitious, the reinvestors, the renewers, the inventive and the growth-focused even more important than they would be anywhere.
Oddly, such businesses can fall below the radar of public consciousness through the way their presence simply permeates our world here, almost invisibly assisting the way we live and work.
Each of the private sector engines of our local economy featured below are well managed, support local employment and are distinguished by ambition and a judicious urge for growth. They are also here to stay.
The construction business built by twin islanders that has literally left its mark across Argyll and the Isles, is arguably the principal source of private sector employment and business-to-business trade in the region.
During the long recession following the collapse of the casino-bent financial institutions, M&K MacLeod not only bucked the trend in holding their business performance steady in a declining market but has successfully borrowed and targeted renewed growth. Not a company to stand still, its example has a lot to teach complacent businesses in the dying centres of Argyll’s main towns.
This achievement of MacLeods’ speaks for strong management, cool heads in tough times and a strategic capability that has been a characteristic of the development of the business.
MacLeods is a crucial economic driver in Argyll and now a secure feature of the business landscape. It will be interesting to watch what it goes on to do.
The most reliable ferry service in the Clyde, the private sector Western Ferries, based in Dunoon and dedicated to delivering local service through local employment, has also marked the recession by committing to major reinvestment and new growth.
The company invested in two new vehicle and passenger boats, judiciously larger than the newest of its existing fleet, commissioned from Cammell Laird on the Mersey. Both were launched – by the wives of two employees, fitted out and entering service with Western this year on its Dunoon-Gurock route, making the company’s fleet the youngest on the Clyde.
Everything about the business model of Western Ferries is exemplary – the service ethos, the local employment, the respect for staff, the calibre of strategic management that has brought its costs as low as they could possibly be, enabling its unsubsidised fare structures to offer the most competitive value to its travellers.
The sight of the two new red boats, pirouetting in synch across the Dunoon waterfront on their homecoming to Hunter’s Quay, shadowed by the Clyde Clipper, hired to carry former employees, families of current employees and of the delivery crews on the boats, was a carnival shared with the town in whose service the company works.
West Coast Motors
Ninety years old, born in the days of the flappers in the early 1920s and still the family business it has always been, West Coast Motors is so much a daily part of the life of Argyll and the west of Scotland that it may well be the most invisible of all of the major private sector employers.
It buses children to school. It buses people around and between the Argyll localities. It takes visitors on open-topper tours around Glasgow, Oban, Bute and now Mull. It runs five return coaches a day on the major arterial trunk road that runs the length and breadth of Argyll – on the A83 from Campbeltown in Kintyre to Tarbet on Loch Lomond, where it becomes the A82 and runs on to Glasgow down the Great Western Road.
In 2013, West Coast Motors too shrugged off the gloom of the recession and went for growth. It made two major acquisitions, both also family firms with which it has an affinity, understanding the importance of local loyalties. These were, first, Bowman’s Tours, the established and respected Mull company. Then came Glasgow-based Fairline Coaches, whose high spec vehicles bring greater flexibility for group hire, transfers and tours, ranging from 16 seat mini-buses right through to 70 seat coaches.
WCM also took on another contract with Stagecoach, running a new express service direct to Edinburgh Airport from Buchanan Street Bus Station in Glasgow, using its new fleet of Scania coaches and opening up to the west coast easy access to and from destinations served by both central belt airports.