Monday Interview: Neil McCallum, Critiqom

THOUGH few will have heard of it, a low-key firm from Bellshill’s sprawling Strathclyde Business Park is set to play a pivotal role in the outcome of Thursday’s fraught finale to the 2015 general election.

Neil McCallum has overseen an increase of sales by a third to 17 million. Picture: John Devlin
Neil McCallum has overseen an increase of sales by a third to 17 million. Picture: John Devlin

More than 900,000 polling cards with crucial information on where and when to vote will be delivered by Critiqom, the mail services specialist known until recently as Document Outsourcing Ltd. The massive chunk of work kept the company’s 80-odd staff busy for most of last month, and will help feed ambitious growth plans by the privately-owned firm.

Headed by managing director Neil McCallum, Critiqom lifted sales by a third to £17 million during the year to the end of March, with profits jumping by 50 per cent to £700,000. That period covered another hectic stretch – the Scottish referendum – in which Critiqom delivered nearly one-third of all the polling cards.

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Despite last year’s momentous events at home, the self-described “critical communications specialist” has grown primarily through expansion into England. From no customers down south just three and a half years ago, Critiqom now derives 80 per cent of its work from England.

The company is targeting a turnover figure of £30m by 2018. It has paved the way for this with an on-going investment in equipment at Bellshill and its sister production facility in Warrington, Cheshire.

“We deliver 100 million documents every year,” McCallum says, “and there are massive peaks in there, so our systems have got to be able to cope with that.”

As well as handling voting, tax and other billing services on behalf of more than 80 local councils and public sector organisations across the UK, Critiqom provides printing and postal services to about 50 financial firms ranging from high street banks to debt collectors.

The key to the company’s success, McCallum says, is its ability to accurately and quickly pull together data from a variety of formats into a single document.

“We know the gig, and we understand the applications,” he says. “We don’t talk about envelopes – we talk to our customers about what is in the envelopes.”

Though McCallum emphasises that Critiqom in a technology-driven company, the firm has added nearly 30 staff since he joined in 2011 at the age of 39.

Raised and schooled in Airdrie, he qualified as an electrician at 19, but nonetheless discovered he was “rubbish at that”. He went on to get an engineering degree and followed that up with a Master’s in facilities management before then joining Morgan Stanley at the age of 26.

“All I really knew was that I didn’t want a predictable career,” he recalls.

That certainly hasn’t been the case, as he eventually moved out of banking to join the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) as head of facilities and estates. It was a “rare and unique opportunity”, he says, cut off only by the offer of the top job at Critiqom and the chance to drive forward its ambitious growth plans.

His latest role has given him scope to expand his involvement with Young Enterprise Scotland (YES), the youth education charity that he has worked with for the past 12 years. As the current chair of Young Enterprise Lanarkshire, McCallum and Critiqom hosted the recent area finals of the annual YES Awards.

As it happens, this year’s winners were from his former school. Rise Enterprise from Airdrie Academy took top honours for their cookbook based on recipes supplied by local Airdrie restaurants, and will now go on to the Scottish finals on 17 June at Glasgow’s Thistle Hotel.

“It is a competition to encourage entrepreneurship, and if you look at the facts and figures, the results are amazing,” McCallum says.

“We provide support to the teams by letting them use our boardrooms, giving them factory tours and showing them how they can manufacture and sell their own products. Interacting with the students is also great for our team members.”

It’s all part of McCallum’s broader “do the right thing” business philosophy: integrate with the community, develop a loyal and inspired team, and pursue sustainable growth by delivering excellent customer service.

The latter can be a challenge when dealing with so many documents containing critical and often sensitive information. Often there is the added complication of ensuring delivery on a specific date, which allows Critiqom’s clients to plan for surges in customer enquiries.

Mistakes are rare, but they do happen from time to time.

“Nobody beats us up more than we beat ourselves up,” McCallum says. “We make mistakes, but we fix them really good and we fix them really quickly.

“It is not about the contract – it is about doing the right thing. We learn from it collectively, and we move on.”

30-second CV

Born: Airdrie, 1971

Education: Airdrie Academy; Caledonian University (BEng); University of Strathclyde (Masters, Facilities Management)

First job: I was a paper boy for three years, but my mum didn’t like me going out early in the morning, so she started giving me the same money for doing the dishes

Can’t live without: Other than my family and my kids, it would be the daily challenges, and my favourite Chinese on a Friday evening

Kindle or Book: Kindle

Favourite city: Glasgow

Preferred transport: Trains – it’s just so relaxing. I love the East Coast Main Line – the views are fantastic

What car do you drive: BMW

What makes you angry: Me, when I know I could have done a better job, but instead I rushed things.