The Big Interview: Female Business Leader of the Year Marie Macklin

Marie Macklin is driving the development of the former Johnnie Walker bottling plant in her home town of Kilmarnock, which will include 175 affordable rented homes. Picture: John Devlin

Marie Macklin is driving the development of the former Johnnie Walker bottling plant in her home town of Kilmarnock, which will include 175 affordable rented homes. Picture: John Devlin

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Her ambition is to put Scotland on an international stage, but Marie Macklin is also orchestrating plans to roll out a series of Ayrshire-inspired arenas showcasing the best of local talent in smaller towns across Britain.

Named Female Business Leader of the Year at the Scottish Business Awards this month, Macklin reveals that ground work on the Halo urban park project in her home town of Kilmarnock is expected to begin in spring next year. Plans for the 23-acre site – formerly the Johnnie Walker bottling plant owned by Diageo – include the creation of commercial, residential and leisure space and a performance venue that she dreams of being opened by Biffy Clyro. The rock band formed in Kilmarnock in 1995 and now play sold-out stadia around the world, including Tuesday’s show at the SSE Hydro in Glasgow.

Macklin’s gutted about missing this week’s gig, but business takes her elsewhere. Preliminary discussions are taking place with officials in Belfast about the creation of a second Halo complex in that city. From there she wants to move into England’s “Northern Powerhouse” and then on to Wales.

“We are very much about local involvement,” Macklin says. “These are communities with a heart that is driving change. We can help assist them by giving them a central hub for that activity.”

Voice-coached for nine years up to the age of 17, her creative passion is rooted in music and lyrics. But though Biffy Clyro has cemented Kilmarnock on rock’s rhythmic map, Macklin’s birthplace is a fount of varied genres such as alt-indie trio Fatherson, folk-punk collective The Stumblers and modern rock duo Huxtable.

“Ayrshire, and Kilmarnock especially, has a got a lot of musical talent,” she says. “We have some fantastic pubs and clubs in Kilmarnock, and every weekend they’ve got live music.

“One of the things Halo will do is provide a showcase for that talent for larger crowds, and at the end of an event that traffic will feed back into local businesses.”

As fervent as she is about live music, it is just one small part of the £60 million Halo project. Work in the spring will initially focus on accommodation including 175 affordable rented homes. There are also plans for 3,000 sq metres of commercial offices plus a digital business centre, an enterprise centre for small and medium-sized businesses, and a hub for creative and social enterprises in fields such as crafts, art, film and media.

The recreational side will be anchored by a year-round leisure and water sports club along with additional health and well-being facilities. A 1,000-capacity conference and exhibition centre will double as a music venue and there are plans for additional “lifestyle” shops and cafés.

Macklin says a combination of private and public funding is in place for the Hill Street project, which sits beside the new Kilmarnock campus of Ayrshire College. Diageo has pledged £2 million to support the regeneration along with the donation of the land, subject to the project meeting certain community benefit goals and securing financial backing from central government.

The latter took a further step forward in September when East Ayrshire Council approved £2m of support for the scheme. The council is now seeking £10m for the project from the Scottish and UK Governments through the Ayrshire Growth Deal, with a decision expected in the coming few months.

Macklin says all money bar that final £10m is now secured, but if the Growth Deal fails to come through, there is a “Plan B” in place.

She is therefore confident of a spring start for the project, whose origins date back to Diageo’s controversial decision to close its Kilmarnock bottling plant in 2012 with the loss of 700 jobs.

Born and raised in Kilmarnock, Macklin well recalls the ructions that closure created. But she argues that Scotland’s towns can equally drive prosperity alongside cities such as Glasgow, where she has recently been appointed to the economic leadership board overseeing more than £1.1 billion of City Deal funding.

“It’s about the opportunity to create wealth for all economies,” she says. “Our towns deserve that support, and we are listening to the people who live in them very carefully to deliver what they need.”

Macklin has been around construction sites since the age of three thanks to her father, John Dick, a bricklayer by trade who worked his way up into the management of construction companies before setting up on his own in 1988. That business became Klin Group, a collection of development and property investment companies specialising in brownfield regeneration.

Her working-class upbringing on a council estate included a patchy academic record, but reflecting upon her recent accolade at the Scottish Business Awards, Macklin says this simply proves that anyone can achieve their ambitions if they aim high enough and work hard enough.

“For a girl like me to pick up such a prestigious award, well, it was just an amazing experience,” she says.

After Kilmarnock Academy, Macklin began her career training in accountancy before moving into banking. By the mid-1990s she was employed in debt factoring and company rescue by Royal Bank of Scotland, but also worked in her spare time with the family business.

It was during this period that Klin became one of the first private sector investors in the regeneration of the Tollcross area of Glasgow.

With the firm growing at a rapid clip, Macklin decided to leave the bank in 1999 and join Klin full-time as its finance director.

She took over the business in 2003 when her father fell ill, and from there phased out construction activities to focus on redevelopment. When the announcement came in 2009 that Diageo would pull the plug on its plant in Kilmarnock, Macklin was at the front of a 20,000-strong march aimed at overturning that decision.

Those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, leaving behind the scar of abandoned industrial grounds. Under the Klin umbrella, Macklin began negotiations with Diageo in 2012 over the future of the site, and by the following year she had started kicking around the idea of turning Halo into a branded string of ventures across British towns and cities facing issues similar to those in Kilmarnock.

She has taken a step back from Klin to focus on Halo – now a separate entity from its former parent company – as well as Macklin Enterprise Partnerships (MEP), an investment vehicle set up in September 2015 in Glasgow’s St Vincent Street.

MEP consists of three investment funds, two of which are targeted at young start-ups and the third focused on businesses going through restructuring. It is run day-to-day by Derek Weir, a former corporate banking executive with RBS and Barclays who has worked since 2009 across a number of non-executive and consultancy roles.

Its first deal was with Mallzee, the shopping app firm headed by Edinburgh entrepreneur Cally Russell. Another notable investment is cloud-based booking management firm Appointedd, set up in 2010 by former magazine editor Leah Hutcheon. MEP evolved out of Macklin’s personal investment activities, and now has more than 25 firms on its books. Funding is open to “ambitious, highly motivated people” launching or developing new-start businesses.

The Investment Fund for Entrepreneurs offers direct funding in exchange for equity, and is accompanied by the Zaniel Fund, named after the angel of Mondays. The latter works in partnership with organisations such as Entrepreneurial Spark, where Macklin serves as a mentor for young firms.

The Restructure Investment Fund provides finance and practical support to organisations in the midst of change. Macklin emphasises that it is not a “lender of last resort”, but rather focuses on companies making strategic shifts such as a move out of family ownership.

While robust business plans are the starting point, Macklin is equally interested in the inspiration and commitment of the people behind those plans. Like the intensity of live music, she wants to feel the passion of those involved.

“For me it is all about people,” she says. “Obviously the product and the plan have to be right, but it is people who make a business.”

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