The Big Interview: Amanda Boyle, chief executive of Scottish Slimmers

Amanda Boyle says there is an economic prerogative due to the cost to business and the economy of people being absent from work because of weight-related ill health. PIcture: Nicholas Frost
Amanda Boyle says there is an economic prerogative due to the cost to business and the economy of people being absent from work because of weight-related ill health. PIcture: Nicholas Frost
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Early on in Amanda Boyle’s career, her boss at a radio station charged her with organising a charity auction, a task that entailed the considerable duty of filling three days of airtime.

He had either taken leave of his senses or had faith in her, she laughs, but the businesswoman acknowledges his recognition “that I was up for the challenge, that I would work very hard”.

Now, a cursory glance at Boyle’s extensive CV shows that his faith was well-placed. Achievements include co-creating a multimillion-pound firm with a host of prestigious clients, a claim to introducing crowdfunding to the UK, and being the first female chair in the Scottish Enterprise network.

Collecting an OBE and string of awards, such as 2006 IoD Scotland female director of the year, on the way, she has now turned her attentions to Scottish Slimmers. It was revealed in March that she had taken on the chief executive role and Best You (Wellbeing) had invested a six-figure sum to take over the slimming club that would remain based in Aberdeen.

The move came about after she was introduced via some consultancy work to those in charge of the business and who were seeking an exit.

Boyle found an organisation formed nearly 40 years ago, but which she felt had changed little in the past ten to 15 years. It operated a “very traditional” class network and hadn’t fully embraced its digital potential, she says. But she does single out its key message of nutritionally balanced eating habits, and the associated sustainable, long-term benefits, as a major advantage in a weight-loss industry the firm says is worth more than £2 billion a year.

According to the latest Scottish Government figures, in 2016 about two-thirds of Scots aged 16 and over were overweight, including 29 per cent who were obese.

Boyle says increased economic disparity is concerning – with NHS Health Scotland saying 37 per cent of women living in deprived areas are obese compared with about a fifth in more affluent areas – but she acknowledges an increased interest in health and wellbeing that Scottish Slimmers looks well-placed to harness.

“When I looked at the industry, it’s predicated generally on making women feel bad about themselves,” she says. “I just don’t think that’s necessary and I don’t think it’s right either. I think [Scottish Slimmers provides] an approach that is much more about holistic wellbeing than just focusing on food and we certainly don’t do body-shaming or fat-shaming.”

The vast majority of its 22,000 members across Scotland are female, while it runs classes in 100 towns and cities from Shetland to the Borders, delivered by 50 staff.

The average age of its customers has been 35 to 55, mainly concentrated at the top end, and Boyle is now looking to tap into the 30 to 40 age bracket. Her other ambitions include accelerating Scottish Slimmers’ work with employers to encourage their staff “to make better choices around lifestyle and eating habits”, with pilot schemes at northeast-based accountancy firm Anderson Anderson Brown and oil giant Shell.

She says there is an economic prerogative due to the cost to business and the economy of people being absent from work because of weight-related ill health, and Scottish Slimmers has contributed to a recent consultation by the Scottish Government.

Scottish sickness absence rates rose from 5.2 per cent in 2016/17 to 5.39 per cent in 2017/18, exceeding a national target of 4 per cent or less.

As for further initiatives by the weight-loss firm, it has launched a range of microwavable ready meals, while collaborations with food firms have led to ranges including salad dressing.

But amid a world of healthy eating information readily available online, Scottish Slimmers is aiming to expand its reach beyond meetings and has started organising events such as spa days and cooking demonstrations. “We build the relationship beyond just the weight-loss issue,” says Boyle.

There has also been a reconfiguration of its core class network to improve the geographic spread of its locations. “Now that we’ve done that, we have a much stronger base and we can see where the gaps are, so we are starting to open classes,” says Boyle, adding that many will be in business locations. Also on the cards is building the team with “slightly different skills”, amid exercise being introduced to the firm’s offering.

Boyle completed an MBA at the University of Dundee, sparking a fascination with workplace psychology that she would later pursue in more depth with a masters in human resource management at Abertay University.

“I do like to keep my brain active, I do like to challenge myself in terms of knowledge and skills and experience.”

Subsequent roles included being co-founder and chief executive of Dundee-based Caledonia Contracts, which blossomed from start-up to multi-million-pound business. This came about after another business went bust, stepping in to finish a project for one customer, and then “fairly opportunistically” approaching all the collapsed firm’s other clients.

The latter move was “completely logical” to Boyle, who notes the decision by Caledonia to only work for high-street retailers with multiple sites “so we knew there was an opportunity for repeat business”. The fit-out contractor has worked for the likes of Schuh, Simply Food, SuperDry, Clydesdale Bank, Yorkshire Bank, Starbucks and HMV.

Boyle’s exit was achieved in a management buyout in 2007, and in 2012 she launched what is billed as Scotland’s first alternative to bank funding for start-ups and early-stage capital after spotting a gap in the market when the funding pipeline for such firms dried up.

Research led her to Kickstarter in the US, at the time a start-up itself but having now enabled 15 million people to back a project, and she found the kind of venture she had been seeking. “We need to build this here,” she said at the time.

Boyle used her connections to assemble a team that would help form Glasgow-based “venture catalyst” Bloom that has worked with organisations including the Ecosse Candle Company. And she believes the crowdfunding market is yet to mature.

Also entrepreneur in residence at Aberdeen Business School at Robert Gordon University and MD of management consulting specialist Accelerate 90, Boyle has also founded or contributed to business mentoring and peer support networks including Women Ahead, 50ft Women, Lean In and what is now Entrepreneurial Scotland. She also held a key role in master planning for Dundee’s Waterfront.

And while she may have had to pull the plug on phoenix venture Business 9am, which sought to build “the most accessible and effective” B2B network for growing and ambitious SMEs, it brought some valuable lessons. “It was a start-up with a great idea at the wrong time,” she says.

It has not deterred her from taking risks, though. “I’m a great believer that you have to, otherwise nothing happens.”

Looking at her career as a whole, the main thread she sees running through everything is some kind of “social mindedness”, such as helping people start businesses. “Maybe it’s a Calvinistic thing about working hard and giving something back. I like to get involved in something where I can make a contribution, make an impact – if I don’t think I can do that, I’m not interested.”

She is now working “eight days a week” at Scottish Slimmers as she looks to realise her goals. “I would like to grow it into a significant business in the UK, not just Scotland. We do have ambitions to take the model and the product elsewhere in the world, but that’s a fairly long way off at the moment.”

And she says it’s the business she’s most excited about in her career given the potential she sees for its long-term, educational message about healthy eating. “There are so many opportunities – it makes such a difference to people’s lives. That has a huge and fundamental impact on our population and is such an exciting prospect.”