The big interview: Tom McDonald, chief of fast-growing tech firm Exsel Group

Just two years ago, Glasgow-based Exsel Group consisted of three people generating less than £100,000 in annual revenues, but much has changed under the stewardship of managing director Tom McDonald.

Exsel Group is aiming to raise between £500,000 and £1m, which Tom McDonald says will allow the company to set up in new locations, with sites in Ireland and London high on its list of priorities. Picture: John Devlin
Exsel Group is aiming to raise between £500,000 and £1m, which Tom McDonald says will allow the company to set up in new locations, with sites in Ireland and London high on its list of priorities. Picture: John Devlin

Turnover during the latest full financial year to March hit £2.7 million as the roll-out of high-level broadband has pushed business demand for cloud computing. Exsel – which prides itself on “making IT easy” – is on course for a further leap in the current year, with revenues projected at £4.5m.

Its Aberdeen office opened in April and employs six people, making a total headcount of 48. A third location in Edinburgh is due to open by March, and with its first external fund-raising on the horizon, Exsel is examining further options for expansion.

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This whirlwind of activity has earned the IT and communications firm the third ranking among the UK’s fastest-growing technology companies, according to the latest Fast 50 list produced by Deloitte. Keeping up that pace would arguably be more than enough to keep McDonald occupied, but he believes business has a much bigger role to play than the simple pursuit of profit.

“It’s about something going back into the community,” he says, hours ahead of the company’s second annual Gifts for Glasgow event. “I came from a very working-class kind of background, so for me I think it is really important to learn to give back early on.”

Launched last year after McDonald got wind of a local charity that would not have enough presents to give a gift to every child on its roster at Christmas, Gifts for Glasgow collected about 700 toys, games and similar items at the inaugural event. Held at Exsel’s CityPark offices a mile from the centre of Glasgow, the company draws on its network of customers to put together an auction and social event, the price of entry being a present suitable for a child under the age of 16.

McDonald is aiming to top last year’s haul by extending the 2016 event into a second day where clients are welcome to join the company Christmas party at a privately hired venue with some special festive entertainment. All gifts and money raised will go to local charities such as the Salvation Army and the Glasgow Care Foundation.

The holidays always bring out charitable corporate inclinations, but at Exsel it’s a year-round mindset. A quick trawl through the company’s website leads to a lengthy list of charities, teams and individuals receiving regular support from Exsel.

Near the top is Enable Scotland, the group dedicated to ensuring equal opportunities for those with learning disabilities. Since winning a business tender with Enable 18 months ago, Exsel has in turn helped the charity by sponsoring events, donating prizes and raising funds. It’s a prime example of the kind of symbiotic business alliance that McDonald wants to promote.

“It is about not having an all-take relationship,” he says. “It is very important for us as part of that to give something back to them. Supporting your customers is vital, especially when they have products or services that you have a budget for anyway. It’s what builds the community.”

Also featured is A&M Scotland, a small charity with no major funders that helps young people in areas of high social deprivation improve their confidence through structured activities such as football and dance. Active in 30 locations across Glasgow, A&M Scotland works with about 1,500 young people each week.

The time and commitment from staff and volunteers at A&M Scotland is “phenomenal”, says McDonald, who sits on some of the charity’s committees and has helped organise various events during the past two years. “It is not just about what we can donate, it is also about how we can work with them on other levels as well,” he says.

Sport features heavily, specifically football, with sponsorship deals in place with Celtic Women, the Homeless World Cup, the Scottish Football Association, Albion Rovers and Gartcairn Football Academy. Exsel also hosts monthly gatherings of the Ex-Footballers Business Meet-Up, which allows those now following different lines of work to network and exchange business leads.

Though injury prevented her quest to compete at the Olympics in Rio, Scottish judoka Kimberley Renicks received a financial boost this year when Exsel stepped in with a £6,000 donation to allow the Commonwealth Games champion to concentrate on training and qualifying events.

Now in rehabilitation following shoulder surgery, Renicks is planning her comeback with sister Louise, who retired after her Commonwealth Games gold medal and is now coaching her sister. McDonald says there will be further discussions next year with the younger Renicks, who was on hand at last week’s Gifts for Glasgow event.

“The two of them are just great personalities,” McDonald says. “It was fantastic to be able to step in and help out when Kimberley was struggling with the finances for her passage to Rio – it’s good to be able to support a local from my same small town.”

Born in Bellshill, McDonald was raised in a “pretty typical” working-class family where his mother was employed as a cleaner while his dad drove taxis. He attended St Margaret’s High School in Airdrie and then Coatbridge College before embarking on a career in telecoms.

His experience is a mix of self-employment and salaried sales positions with organisations such as Barclay Communications and Orange Business Services. Immediately prior to joining Exsel in July 2013, he was UK regional sales manager for Rainbow Communications, the Belfast-based provider of business telecoms.

At that time, Exsel had been running for five years as a one-man band under founder Mike Wilson, who is today the company’s director of IT. They quickly decided to hire sales director Craig Armstrong, who along with Wilson and McDonald shares an equal split of the company’s equity.

The trio decided to pursue aggressive growth. All profits were ploughed back into the business, allowing it to expand without any external investment. That will soon change, however, as Exsel is aiming to raise between £500,000 and £1m to assist in the next phase of its growth strategy. It is hoped that the funding will be in place by the end of February. McDonald says that will allow the company to set up in new locations, with sites in Ireland and London high up the list of priorities. New products are also in the pipeline, which could lead to the establishment of a call centre to service product sales.

Staffing at the Aberdeen office is expected to at least double in the coming months with the addition of up to eight new recruits. The Edinburgh office is set to employ four or five people when it opens within the next three months.

Expanding the company’s footprint isn’t a vanity project, but rather an extension of the same ethos that drives Exsel’s sponsorship and charity work. “What we want to have is a local presence in the areas where we operate,” McDonald says. “It is very important to be part of the local community.”

As someone who is “not techy”, McDonald sees his role as one of “translator” between the IT specialists and the end-users. He points out that most business owners don’t have an IT background and have little need to understand the technical protocols that run their communications equipment.

“We communicate on a level that our customers can understand,” McDonald says. “As an industry we are fine with explaining the technical specifications, but what we don’t really do is tell our customers why it works. What we do is bring ‘why’ into the discussion. Look at your phone – nobody cares how the App Store get an app to your phone. You are just happy that the app is there, and that you can get it when you want to.”