External advice can help take a business to a higher level

Flying down a zipwire, relaxing in a sea-view snug, dancing the night away with your wedding guests '“ there's an activity on that list to appeal to most tastes, which goes some way to explaining the success of Laggan Outdoor.

Growth story: Laggan Outdoor, which Duncan McConchie, pictured left with his family, started as an archery centre, has grown into a multi-activity venture.
Growth story: Laggan Outdoor, which Duncan McConchie, pictured left with his family, started as an archery centre, has grown into a multi-activity venture.

What started ten years ago as a one-man band operating out of a cowshed in Dumfries and Galloway – and even then only when the cattle weren’t occupying it – has grown into a “rural venue of excellence” with exciting plans in the pipeline.

Making the best use of the skills of employees – or what could be termed “workplace innovation” – is enabling Laggan Outdoor to add to its offering as an outdoor activity centre and operate as a profitable, efficient and responsive business all year round.

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After a stint working in television production, director Duncan McConchie moved home to the family farm near Castle Douglas in 2007 with a big dream of starting a business which offered adventure and recreational activities for all ages – something he felt there was a gap in the market for in the area.

Rather than borrow the £500,000 he had initially intended, McConchie took advice from a fellow business owner and lowered his loan to just £2,000 which was enough for him to train as an archery instructor, buy a banner which he put up by the side of the A75, and welcome his first customers to the cowshed.

“We just reinvested the profits we made from the archery and used them to buy clay pigeon traps,” says McConchie.

“I went off and trained as a clay pigeon instructor, got someone in to help me teach archery and we ran the two activities for the first 18 months.”

A shoestring budget saw McConchie build the Laggan Outdoor website from scratch before branching out into water balling. He was first in line to climb inside one of the giant inflatable balls and launch himself down one of the estate’s purpose-built tracks and the business, he says, quite literally snowballed from there.

McConchie credits workplace innovation concepts with helping him mould the business into an innovative venture with its staff at its core.

“We added new things every year and increased our offering,” he explains. “It was more of a lifestyle business until we built our zipwire in 2012 and that’s when things just went crazy.

“It was the longest zipwire in Europe at the time at 820 metres. We got a lot of TV coverage and from that day on, our phone has never stopped ringing.”

With the help of his wife Vicki, who gave up a career as a school teacher to come on board with the venture, McConchie upgraded the facilities by swapping a green Portakabin for wood cabins and added the Basecamp Cafe which has become a stand-alone business thanks to its use of local produce and its spectacular views across Fleet Bay.

Last July, eight luxury sea-view snugs joined the ranks, this addition of overnight accommodation offering a new, year-round visitor experience. Next on the expansion plan is the conversion of a 250-year-old steading into a wedding and conference venue.

“The problem was that the business was seasonal,” says McConchie. “Come the end of October, people don’t really want to do outdoor activities until the weather improves.

“Although we really wanted to retain our core team, it was really difficult out of season. The staff are utterly vital. In every presentation I do about our business, the last slide is always our team because with the kind of business we have the staff are everything.”

In the last 12 months alone the team has grown considerably from five full-time members of staff in early 2016 to 12 this year – and that number will rise to 38 in the summer months.

“We take people on not for skills or training or the fact that they can shoot or teach archery but for their ability to speak and communicate with people. They are the people who ensure our five-star rating.

“We talk to the staff about the future of the business although we probably don’t let them drive it enough at the moment because we are going through a really critical time over the next year with the development of a wedding and conference venue and that’s something where we have to control every element.”

That said, leadership programmes and an organisational development review led by Scottish Enterprise have helped McConchie loosen the reins and learn how to make the most of his team.

“Scottish Enterprise ​facilitated an organisational development review with all of our staff which was looking at the emotional intelligence of all of them,” he explains.

“When you start going into people’s emotional intelligence you understand that actually with different people you have to communicate with them in different ways to get them to respond.

“The team have now taken on the snugs – their management and marketing – because Vicki and I are very focused on the new venue. The day-to-day running and ideas is very much managed and run by the team.”

The Leadership for Growth and Rural Leadership programmes enabled McConchie – who was named Business Person of the Year at the Dumfries and Galloway Life Awards in November – to take a step back, have faith in his ability as a leader and maximise his assets.

“I realised I needed to work on the business not in the business,” he says. “I was controlling every move and that just came from a lack of trust, but now we have the right team in place and there is 100 per cent trust that I can just leave them to do their jobs.

“The organisational development review just unleashed the power of my team where before I had probably been suppressing it.”

Planning permission for the venue project was approved last month – the welcome result of a long and, at times, challenging journey.

But it’s a bright idea that’s paid off and although it’s still a patch of muddy ground, the venue, GG’s Yard is already proving popular with brides-to-be thanks to Vicki’s creative designs.

“We have named it GG’s Yard in honour of my great granny who lives next door,” McConchie explains. “She’s 97 and she did our zipwire for her 96th birthday.

“Right now it’s just a farmyard but people are already booking. We built a website and since June last year when it went live we have had 38 bookings for weddings next year.

“The standard conversion rate from people coming to look at a venue to them booking it is 30 per cent and we are at 98 per cent.”

Meetings with incentive travel companies have already shown there’s an appetite for the snugs and conference venue in the corporate market.

“When we showed them our product they just went crazy for it. We now know that the corporate market will be a market that can help us sustain our out-of-season dates. We see that as a large part of our growth going forward. The big picture for us now is we have a ten-year plan to become a nationally recognised rural destination.”

Workplace innovation is about making use of your best asset – your people.

By encouraging entrepreneurial behaviour at all levels of an organisation and involving staff in strategic decision making, a business can go from strength to strength and operate efficiently, responsibly and at a profit.

There is a misconception that workplace innovation means wild ideas like installing nap zones and stocking super foods in the staff room to boost brain power, but at the end of the day, it’s much more simple.

Research shows that workplace innovation is a key enabler to productivity, with evidence from a Dutch study indicating that 75 per cent of successful business innovation is achieved through changes to managerial, organisational and work practices at an operational level.

It might be a case of rolling out an employee engagement programme to encourage staff to share ideas. Often, it means not being prescriptive about how things need to be done and focusing on outcomes rather than processes.

The ultimate goal is to create a better and more successful business with a loyal staff who enjoy working there and are proud to be a part of the organisation’s growth.

Successful and sustainable organisations create empowering workplace environments that enable employees at every level to use their knowledge, skills and talents to the fullest possible extent.

Scottish Enterprise runs a programme of structured masterclasses, workshops and learning events with the aim of energising and inspiring businesses to listen to the ideas of their employees. Details of the support available can be found on the Scottish Enterprise website.

This article appears in the SPRING 2017 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version is available here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.