Driving force in Scotland - Interview: Charles McLeod

CHARLES McLeod, MBE, has his work cut out. As managing director of support services firm Amey in Scotland, McLeod’s myriad responsibilities include maintaining the M8 and rebuilding and refurbishing schools in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The firm that began life as a road quarrying company today provides services ranging from managing large-scale transportation infrastructure to delivering business support services and has a forward order book of more than 3.5bn.

Amey’s impressive client list includes the Ministry of Defence, Railtrack, Marks & Spencer and Centrica, in addition to contracts with several unitary authorities north of the Border.

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Life in the FTSE 250 index is clearly not enough for Amey, which has set its store in joining the bluechip FTSE 100.

Heavy responsibilities sit on the shoulders of McLeod, who could be seen as relatively young, at 39, to be running such a large business in Scotland. He has been in the hot seat at Amey since March 2000 and runs the operations from his base in Glasgow.

In 2001, group sales totalled 786m, with the Scottish operation, employing 1,400 staff, punching well above its weight by contributing between 15% and 20% of the turnover.

North of the Border, McLeod oversees Amey’s public-private contracts with Glasgow City Council and City of Edinburgh Council to build, upgrade and maintain schools. He also looks after the contract to manage eight motorways, including the firm’s now infamous work on the M8.

McLeod’s CV is as varied as the range of fields that Amey operates in and his employment record is "chequered" by his own admission.

Born in London, he spent his first seven years in Rhodesia, before moving back to England and Kent, where he spent much of his childhood.

A spell in the army preceded his attendance at King’s College, London, where he gained a BA (Hons) in German, after which he went to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He served as a platoon commander with the British Army for 10 years, and saw service in Northern Ireland. He eventually became captain in the Queen’s Regiment and was later awarded an MBE for his services in Northern Ireland.

After serving in the army for 10 years, McLeod joined the Foreign Office as monitor for the European Community Monitor Mission in the former Yugoslavia, and went on to work as a political adviser to the International Conference in the region.

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In 2000, McLeod joined Amey after three years working with 3ED Glasgow, an Amey-led consortium with Bank of Scotland and Miller Construction. His work there included winning and managing the Glasgow Secondary Schools public private partnership projects for the local authority.

Almost immediately, McLeod was appearing in the newspapers after Amey’s work on upgrading road networks ran into problems. Last October, two consecutive days of heavy congestion on the M8 caused by the collapse of a manhole cover resulted in eight-mile tailbacks and a barrage of criticism.

Of the incident, McLeod recalls: "There was still a degree of political backlash that Amey had been given the contracts to manage the trunk roads.

"Things have moved on and I think that now we have a better relationship for example with Glasgow City Council."

Companies involved in PPP, otherwise known as the private finance initiative, come in for relentless criticism, often castigated for profiteering at the expense of the public and never more so than with the recently approved proposals for the London Underground, which also involve Amey. But McLeod is convinced the model works, that it transfers the risks associated with big money contracts from the public to the private sector.

Plans for major road and rail developments, including proposed rail links between Glasgow and Edinburgh and their respective airports, have been mooted by the Scottish Executive, but with limited indication of funding. Given the constraints on the public purse, McLeod regards PPPs as one of the best ways of helping such ambitious plans come to reality.

He says: "By and large, it’s not taking business away from the public sector. The public sector needs to have its infrastructure improved. PFI is enabling the public sector to do this. Private sector is happy to do this because it always needs new business. In most cases the result is a success."

Other road maintenance projects include the 176m contract to maintain eight motorways and 16 trunk roads from Perth to the Borders. In addition, Amey has won an 8m a year contract for 10 years to maintain all roads in North Lanarkshire.

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Yet as a parent of two young sons, McLeod, it seems, is most proud of the school regeneration and building projects that Amey is involved in. It is these projects for which ultimately he and his company could gain the most praise.

Amey has a 1.2bn PPP contract for Glasgow City Council to rebuild and refurbish 29 secondary schools and one primary school.

In addition, the company won the 360m schools contract by the City of Edinburgh Council. Under the 30-year contract, 10 new primary schools, two special schools, two high schools, a secure unit and a community centre will be built, and three high schools and one special school will be refurbished.

McLeod says: "I’m certainly very proud. Most of the things I have done have been trying to improve the quality of life for people in one way or another.

"There are people for whom private sector involvement per se is wrong. But if you look around the British landscape, there are a significant number of schools that wouldn’t have existed otherwise."

Amey is hoping to win contracts similar to the Edinburgh and Glasgow schools work elsewhere in Scotland.

A decision could be made as early as next month, according to McLeod.

He says: "We are the leading provider in Scotland and we ought to be in a good position, but we don’t expect anything."

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Amey received a boost last year when Sir Ian Robinson, former chief executive of ScottishPower and current chairman of Scottish Enterprise, joined as non-executive chairman.

Another fillip came from Amey’s work with the SFA in helping it prepare its documentation relating to Scotland and Ireland’s joint bid to stage the 2008 Euro competition. McLeod’s company acted as a consultancy providing advice on transport, ticketing and accommodation for the bid.

As to the future, McLeod says that Amey will concentrate on organic growth in Scotland, and predicted that he could still be working with the company in five years’ time.

As he says: "If Amey as a business is still providing the right sort of opportunity for me to do what I’m good at, then there’s no reason why I should not still be here."