Interview: Maitland Mackie on the family business

Maitland Mackie is from a line of innovators and his children are equally creative. He feels the independence issue is 'damned silly'. Picture: Jon Savage

Maitland Mackie is from a line of innovators and his children are equally creative. He feels the independence issue is 'damned silly'. Picture: Jon Savage

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Maitland Mackie, the farmer and ice-cream empire builder, belongs to a long line of similarly-named first-born sons. It is a family tradition, at least for the most-recent five generations.

So his grandfather, who established what is now recognised as Mackie’s of Scotland in 1912, was Maitland, as was his father, Sir Maitland. His son, who is now managing director of the family business is known as Mac, but is also Maitland. And Mac’s son, 14-year-old Maitland, prefers to go under the moniker Mike.

As the patriarch of both the family and the business, Mackie, 76, who remains chairman, is well suited to laying bare the ins and outs of keeping a family enterprise together. Tomorrow he will be the first to take the stage as part of the family enterprise lecture series at Strathclyde University’s business school, which will also feature representatives from some of Scotland’s most-important businesses dynasties, including Walkers Shortbread and Glenfiddich whisky maker William Grant & Sons.

The first rule of family businesses, says Mackie, who has passed ownership of the business to his three children, is don’t keep meddling. He said: “When I was pulling myself out of it, I discovered that, the less I did, the better the business did. Very humbling.”

The family firm can be traced back to his ancestors’ long history of farming in the region north of Aberdeen.

“I’ve been lucky. My grandfather and my father were innovators. I certainly picked that up just out of the family modus operandi. And the great news, my son and his two sisters who have taken over the business, I’ve noticed they have the same culture of looking for the new.”

The firm started producing ice cream when the trend for semi-skimmed milk became more prevalent – and the family decided to turn the cream removed from the milk into iced desert.

But they haven’t stopped the changes there. Three years ago the company started making crisps in a joint venture with Taypack, the family-owed potato business based near Dundee. The move was led by Mac, along with Maitland’s daughters – Karin Hayhow and Kirstin McNutt – who are also both directors of Mackie’s.

Now McNutt, the company’s development director, has plans to launch a chocolate bar.

“She has been rushing around the world learning about cocoa,” said Mackie. “The point is the brand and the name is fundamental. The reason the crisps are doing so well is they are good products, but they got quickly into the supermarkets because we already had a brand image.”

The Mackies have long been working with Strathclyde University and its pioneering research into family business, which has focused on how to prevent them from collapsing as succeeding generations struggle over ownership and management.

“There are two things about family businesses – how do you run it and how do you pass it on,” said Mackie.

One of the lessons the Mackies took to heart was the need to establish a family council, which convene at the farm once or twice a year. At the next one, they will determine how to introduce the grandchildren into the business.

Mackie himself started running the firm as soon as he graduated from Aberdeen University, where he studied agriculture. But he also had to buy out the share of the business his sisters had inherited. The grandfather before him had given each of his six children, including two daughters, a farm.

“That tradition was there. For my own children we set up systems to let them get the ownership. They now have full ownership according to the rules we made up ten years ago.”

Bringing in his children meant change for Mackie – but he was able to adapt knowing he needed to involve his children early.

“An important ‘road to Damascus’ moment for me in the early 90s was ‘dae fit yer ealt’ – which means ‘do what you are told’. It was a style of management. Moving from that to involving people in the business in decision taking and communicating made a great difference,” he recalls.

His son also encouraged him through the massive change for the firm when Mackie’s actually sold off its milk business to Wiseman – also formerly a family-owned company and now known as Muller Wiseman – in 1997.

“We had haggled and sold the milk business – it was a dramatic and traumatic thing to sell off your life’s work. My son said ‘you should do this, dad’.”

Since he has become chairman he has had time to devote to his a “hobbyhorse” – renewable energy He believes that 90 per cent of the energy in the world will come from renewables in 20 to 30 years, not 50 to 100.

“When you look at the technology, renewable is now cheaper than a new gas-fired plant. There is still the intermittency question to take care of but the intermittency space will be covered as we discover better ways to store the excess energy.

“Once that storage potential is cracked there is no argument left. The environmental problem of conventional fuels just disappears.”

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