'You can sleep when you're dead' Alister Jack

YOU have just sold two self-storage businesses, one in the UK and one in France, for a combined total of about £54 million, what do you do next?

If you are Armadillo boss Alister Jack you take a fortnight's holiday in pursuit of the sea trout of Argentina - "very exciting, the biggest in the world".

But you plan to return to work the following week, hitting the phones, scanning the commercial property pages, and pounding the industrial estates of provincial cities the length and breadth of Britain in search of suitable sites for new depots. In short, you start all over again.

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That may not be your idea of self-reward, but then you probably have not amassed an estimated 20m fortune by building up and selling on a succession of highly profitable businesses.

Not that Jack is a workaholic - no-one who fits in as much fishing, shooting and golfing as he does can be called that. But right now he has the priceless quality of momentum and he's damned if he is going to fritter that away. "You can sleep when you're dead," he says.

After divesting himself of three self-storage businesses since 1992, first Aardvark, then the Paris, Lyon and Nice-based Armadillo Self-Stockage, and last week its UK sister company Armadillo, Jack has already registered the name of another. The next one will be called (you may have guessed) Alligator Self-Storage. He intends it to be his biggest yet.

The route by which Jack has arrived in the major league of Scottish entrepreneurship has potent lessons on exploiting opportunities. Although he has never aspired to a public profile as a businessman (though he did serve as vice-chairman of the Scottish Conservatives in the William Hague era), Jack's latest pay day suggests that his hard-won knowledge of what makes a Scottish company nationally competitive is worth hearing.

Jack's family have been businessmen and farmers in south-west Scotland for several generations. He himself farms 1,200 acres near Lockerbie and is as critical of the Scottish Executive and Scottish Parliament's record on farming as he is of their "deeply depressing" addiction to business-unfriendly legislation.

Educated at Glenalmond, then at Heriot-Watt University, Jack always presumed that he would run his own business. He and business partner Cameron Stewart co-founded the tent-hire firm Field & Lawn in 1987.

"At that time we were going to a lot of 21sts and people were always saying 'the tent cost a fortune'. We thought, 'Hmm, there's obviously something in this, and all this lot will be getting married soon'."

Field & Lawn doubled its turnover every year for a decade, expanding from an industrial estate in Broxburn to cover the entire UK. The hard grind of managing a large national labour force, not to mention the wear-and-tear of hysterical brides' mothers and malicious British weather, was the toughest of training schools but it provided the platform for the self-storage business, which he started in 1997 after stepping back from Field & Lawn (the company remains one of two non-executive directorships).

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In the 20 years since his eureka moment about converting canvas into cash, Jack has built a reputation as a ferociously clear business thinker. He proceeds on the basis that the route to success is littered with a thousand would-be distractions. However alluring their disguise, they must be exposed and thrown aside.

"The important thing to learn is to focus absolutely on what matters," he has said. "In any business you can be led astray. In Field & Lawn as an example, people were always coming along and saying, 'You should be in the catering business' or 'you should employ a flower arranger'. Wrong."

Jack's instinct that renting out warehouse space to domestic and business users - essentially making money from empty space - was a Scarlett Johannssen among beautiful business models has been more than vindicated. But his talent lies as much in perfecting the execution as well in having the idea. Many who have entered this fast-growing, recession-proof sector have got it wrong.

From the start, and in spite of strong inducements to do otherwise and the trend of the industry, Jack insisted that Aardvark and its successors would only buy sites freehold, knowing that in a leasehold business, the value diminished year by year as the term of the lease approached.

Also, in a business where location is everything, Jack could see potential in tricky brownfield sites - an abandoned cinema in Liverpool for instance - that less enterprising companies would dismiss as too difficult.

Similarly he would reject any site, however otherwise alluring, that violated his own rules that self-storage depots must be highly visible and must be within 15 minutes' drive of a population of 100,000 largely middle-income people. But while sticking to the company's core competence, he has innovated in service and dcor in ways that have given his companies an edge.

"Al is a tremendous catalyst," says Norman Galbraith, the former business partner who alerted Jack to the commercial potential of self-storage following a trip to the US. Together they took Aardvark from being a single depot to being a nationwide chain.

"I met him when he did the tents at my wedding. We bought this hideous building in Easter Road in Edinburgh - it was a seriously scary place strewn with syringe needles and with a roof that would flap open noisily in the wind. I would never have chosen it but Alister saw the potential, and of course he was dead right."

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Their initial ambitions for Aardvark were modest but everything changed when Galbraith told his partner about a self-storage trade fair in London that had made him realise the industry's potential. Galbraith says: "I remember calling him on my mobile from Kings Cross after this event. I used to be the one to go to these things to pick up ideas, as Al couldn't be bothered, having total confidence in his own judgment.

"By the time my train got to Edinburgh it was clear that he was completely sold on what I had told him about where this industry could go. He was buzzing, talking about what we would do to raise money and what would happen next. It was already all clear in his head. Then he pressed the button and made it all happen. We got the finance to build the business and eventually took it up to nine sites across the country.

"Alister has this amazing ability to get people to do the time-consuming stuff, while he sits back and has visions. And he is a fantastic organiser, one of the most organised people I know. He plans five years ahead, though that doesn't mean he won't change his mind if something happens in the meantime."

What next? Jack claims to have no plans beyond building up Alligator. While experience should have made this easier, he is contractually bound not to compete directly with the two UK self-storage companies he has already sold.

In the meantime, Jack retains political ambitions, but is dismissive of both the theory and practice of the Scottish Parliament, and at present sees "no incentive" to try to help correct Holyrood's notorious dearth of business expertise.

This is regrettable, as Scotland's business growth statistics and GDP figures suggest that our would-be entrepreneurs, not to mention the politicians who are supposed to facilitate their aspirations, need all the expert support they can get. As Alister Jack clearly knows what works, they should be watching and listening to what he does.


• KEEP a sense of humour: I learned about the importance of keeping things in perspective running a high-pressure tent business in Scotland, especially when the wind got up.

• Innovate, but don't diversify: Focus on your business and don't go off on time-wasting tangents. We have introduced many new things - music and furnishing - that make our storage facilities better, but we don't do removals or have a fleet of vans picking up serviced documents. As Andrew Carnegie said, "the wise man puts all of his eggs in one basket and then watches that basket".

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• Train hard for service: We do a lot to make sure our employees make the customer feel good. Everyone who uses our storage depots is asked to give feedback on the facilities and the quality of staff interactions.

• Treat your staff well: A high level of staff retention tells its own story. You only get this from paying good salaries and bonuses and making a pleasant working environment.