There is little at first glance that connects high welfare animal shelters, the London 2012 Olympic Games, partition walls for industrial plants, and aircraft hangars.
But they are connected and a perfect example of how business needs to constantly evolve and seek new markets to grow. Kreston Reeves met Ali McGregor, the Managing Director of the family owned and run, Hampshire-based McGregor Group to discover more.
In 1979 Ewan and Monica McGregor started a business called McGregor Polytunnels Ltd. It did exactly as the name suggests - making polytunnels for the agricultural community.
Yet, even then, it would be unfair to put its highly-engineered steel and fabric shelters into the same field as the acres of clear plastic polytunnels that dot the countryside today. They were sold as high welfare shelters for sheep and other livestock.
The foundations of a much bigger business were there from the very beginning.
Brothers Andrew and Ali McGregor joined the family business a decade ago, with Ali now Managing Director and Andrew its Engineering Director.
“We are at heart a specialist manufacturing company, making steel and fabric structures,” explains Ali. “These structures are used across the agricultural sector, but we could see the potential for their use much more widely.”
Today, McGregor Group’s structures are now used as light aircraft hangars, partition walls in warehousing and manufacturing plants, and as shelters and covered walkways at major events, including the London 2012 Olympics.
McGregor Group markets its products through three separate brands – McGregor Polytunnels, McGregor Hangars, and McGregor Fabric Structures.
“One of the big challenges we are having to address to successfully grow and scale the business is to clearly define our products and markets,” says Ali. “For many years, customers were able to specify bespoke products to suit their own needs which makes the manufacturing process that much more complicated.
“We don’t want to lose that flexibility, but we do want to be able to offer a greater range of core products across our target sectors. That will allow the business to grow faster and more effectively.”
McGregor Group, with a turnover of £2.6m, employs some 30 people across its two manufacturing plants deep in the Hampshire countryside. The agricultural sector remains a core market, with demand for its shelters growing as animal welfare, free-range and organic products increasingly important to customers.
“Our products have strong markets in the UK, but also on the West Coast of America, mainland Europe and North Africa,” says Ali. “We are also seeing strong interest from the industrial and warehousing sectors, but it is a very big market dominated by global players. It is a difficult and costly market to break.
“The uncertainty around Brexit has, conversely, been good for our business. The falling value of the Pound has made our shelters cheaper to buy for overseas customers and international sales have grown. Online marketing makes it much easier to reach overseas markets, and I know there is an opportunity to invest in marketing to take advantage of this.”
McGregor Group has been an early adopter of technology, particularly cloud accounting with Xero, guided by the accountancy firm Kreston Reeves.
“A good friend of mine is a founder of Receipt Bank, allowing businesses to scan receipts and invoices straight to their accounting software,” says Ali. “What really struck me was the value of the data that can be collected on customers. It was a real wake-up call and we knew straight away that this was something we should be looking at. That was five years ago.”
That data also includes the ability of Xero to provide its users with the management accounting information every business owner needs.
The Kreston Reeves team – led by Ian Burrows, Jenny Crockford, and Robert Beasley – have been on hand to guide the business on this journey. The firm helped the business move across to Xero and to interrogate it in the way to draw out the financial and management information needed.
And from one project further work has flowed. Kreston Reeves has since guided McGregor Group into the most appropriate corporate structure, on tax matters, and on various day to day financial management and forecasting.
Robert Beasley, a senior manager at Kreston Reeves said: “Xero has given Ali the financial and management information he needs to better manage his business. But it has done more than that. As his advisers, we too have that information. Our understanding of the company and ability to flag key financial information means we are better placed to help the McGregor Group continue to grow.”
“I cannot speak more highly of the Kreston Reeves team,” says Ali. “They blend the commercial insights and the technical support we need perfectly. They are also on hand to help us interpret the data Xero provides allowing us to better run our business.”
Ali, Andrew and his team at McGregor Group are looking to build a growing, healthy and sustainable business for future generations of the McGregor family. Ali offers this advice to other business leaders.
“Read widely, be creative, and keep an eye on what has happened before – learn from mistakes and successes. Think, but don’t over analyse. Plan ahead and have a strategy that is flexible. For example, when we look to invest in new machinery, we ask not if is the most efficient machine available but whether it can meet our needs in a decade’s time, even if we are not entirely sure what they might be.
“Technology gives businesses the data needed for continuous review, and every business leader should use it. Hubris is the enemy.”