The Big Interview: Gary McEwan, CEO of Elevator
Gary McEwan was just four years old when he launched his first business venture: selling “stunned” bumble bees to classmates in the school playground.
“I developed a tactic to hit a bumble bee and knock it out for a minute or two and sell it on to other kids in the playground for 5p,” he says. “They had a lot going for them as the perfect pet! You didn’t have to take it for a walk, you didn’t have to feed it – they sold themselves.” Sadly these weren’t to be forever homes, with the stripy creatures usually making a bid for freedom once they came to. “After the kid had it in their hand for a few moments it would regain consciousness and fly off,” says McEwan.
Now chief executive of Aberdeen-headquartered Elevator, the social enterprise set up to help drive growth at new and existing businesses, McEwan laughs as he recalls his early exploits. But the schoolyard marketplace proved the first step to honing skills that would go on to define his career. The serial entrepreneur now leads an organisation which supports 2,500 new and aspiring entrepreneurs each year. Although he entered the role with some trepidation, he quickly realised how well it suited him, primarily because of his “learning by doing” method of gathering expertise.
“As someone who has genuinely been there, done it and got the T-shirt you couldn’t create a better role for me,” he says. “I wasn’t good at school, as in I wasn’t academic, I was just good at coming up with how to make a quid or two. A few of my businesses I started with nothing and ended up with nothing. They taught me how to deal with people, how to make a profit, how to plan.”
Elevator partners with the Scottish Government-backed support network Business Gateway and handles the contract to provide their services in Aberdeenshire, but is also active elsewhere, with 22 offices covering locations from Perth to the Highlands, in addition to its Centres of Entrepreneurship in the Granite City and Dundee. The social enterprise offers specialist business support and multiple accelerator programmes, with the goal of helping business leaders and entrepreneurs to “shortcut the problems that they are eventually going to go through”, says McEwan.
He joined the Elevator board while still living in Glasgow and was asked to take over as CEO in 2008. He let himself get “sweet-talked” into trialling the position for six months, viewing it as something of an experiment in blending corporate cultures and breaking new territory as his first job, in the traditional sense.
He says: “They were asking me to take over a job where I would be responsible to the board, where I didn’t choose the management team and at a company I hadn’t started. I wondered what would happen if we installed an entrepreneur into a corporate structure. I think we have made it more entrepreneurial and the board quite quickly took their hands off it. I can continue to be an entrepreneur, continue to tender for contracts, but the fun thing is that when we do turn a profit we get to do good things rather than giving it away to shareholders.”
Six months have become more than a decade. In that time, the venture has roughly doubled in size to be one of the biggest organisations of its kind in Scotland. Notable alumni include hi-tech monitoring firm Sentinel Subsea, who attended Elevator’s Grey Matters programme, a joint initiative between Elevator and Scottish Enterprise to support senior oil and gas professionals. Pint pouring tech firm Ebar benefited from the Aberdeen accelerator, while model and lifestyle blogger Howey Ejegi, along with “Airbnb for driving instructors” GoRoadie, are graduates of its scheme in Dundee.
The difference between the days when McEwan started out and the modern start-up landscape is clear, as technology unlocks new potential for businesses to find value. He says the environment feels “tangibly different” now, with firms able to scale increasingly quickly. “Take the Fortune 500. Thirty years ago it used to be only the old companies, your Coca-Colas and people like that. Now you have tech firms that have been around for not much more than ten years, like Airbnb – it’s huge and it doesn’t even own any hotels. The ability to start a business that you can grow quickly, we have never had a time like that before.”
Amid this rapid and ongoing evolution, the business challenges remain the same, he says: get investors on board, understand the market, appeal to your customers. The principle of entrepreneurship, “making something for 50p that you can sell on for £1”, is also constant, as is the need for a productive attitude towards failure. One of McEwan’s early enterprises in his teenage years was selling pet food door-to-door on Glasgow housing estates. After leaving school without a qualification, he stocked up on dog treats and polystyrene trays at the cash and carry one day, packaged them into neatly presented bundles, and loaded up a converted ambulance he’d bought at an auction.
“The business was going really well, I built up a real high level of stock in the ambulance, then it was broken into one day,” he recalls. “Everything I’d worked for two years was all gone. I remember seeing the doors hanging open at the back of the van. That was the first time I was really hurt. It was the first time I remember crying in my adult life. But actually it’s the best thing that could have happened because my next business was the one that gave me that national recognition.”
McEwan went on to launch what he calls “a proper business, as in, it had a business plan”, with the support of the Prince’s Trust. It was a driving school with a twist: teaching students behind the wheel of trucks and buses. “That business won me the Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards for Glasgow, then Scotland, then the UK. I sold it at the age of 27 and I’ve been involved in investing in other people’s businesses since then, as well as starting my own.”
To this day, he works in partnership with the Prince’s Trust, supporting a cause that remains dear to him. He also promotes entrepreneurship as a credible and viable career option to young people. This perhaps stems from his own experience with education, where he feels he was perceived by teachers as being “a bit of a troublemaker” when he displayed a different way of learning. He says: “I didn’t learn by textbook, I learned by doing things. The message I was getting, though, was that I was no use.”
A point of personal pride for McEwan came in 2014 when he was awarded the title of Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Dundee. It was the first time he felt accepted by education and that his expertise was valid.
Professionally, his targets include taking the momentum Elevator has built in the north and generating the same results across the country. Another key goal is to drastically improve the potential for start-ups in the Scottish business community to become scale-ups, and advance to achieve what he calls “significance”.“I’m a Central Belt man and I have enjoyed my time in Aberdeen – we have started a bit of a revolution here. I would love to replicate this in Glasgow and Edinburgh. My mission this year is to have an office down in the Central Belt. It’s a big year for me personally, because I see it taking me back to my homeland.”
McEwan has gradually divested away from his other business interests since taking the helm at Elevator, which involved operating and developing companies in sectors from financial services software to electronic manufacturing and business consultancy. His purpose now is to deliver accessible education and support for entrepreneurs in Scotland.
“Start-ups are all different but the same in many ways. You’re uniquely energetic, passionate, hard working. That will get you so far. But the problem that we have in Scotland is that only 7 per cent of start-ups become ‘significant’. By that I mean up to eight or nine employees. It’s not that only one in 12 businesses has the potential to grow, it seems that only one in 12 entrepreneurs has the ability. They need support to be able to scale their company. Whether they can access that support is another story.”
True to the style of many entrepreneurs, McEwan appears to have a dinner set of proverbial plates spinning at any one time. With new opportunities constantly vying for his attention, he has developed a tactic to decide whether a project will fit into his life or not. He asks three questions: Will it give me a short-term gain? A long-term gain? Or would I just enjoy doing it? “If it doesn’t fit one of these categories, or a combination of all three, then I won’t do it.”
Of course, there are exceptions: “I give the Prince’s Trust as much time as they want. I enjoy it and if it weren’t for them, then I wouldn’t be here now.”