Rag trade skills thread success for Maclean

Rag trade skills thread success for Maclean

By his own admission, Allan Maclean is not a technologist. He is, however, an astute businessman.

In the past 15 years he has built Maclean Computing from a two-person start-up in the nascent PC industry, into an 80-strong company offering a well-rounded portfolio of technology services.

Although a relative novice in the technology world when he founded the company in 1993, he was a seasoned business operator with skills honed during nearly 30 years in the ‘rag trade’.

His working life began in 1966 as an executive trainee at the Whangarei branch of then iconic New Zealand clothing chain McKenzies.

While Maclean entered the retail world by choice at the time, his original plan was not to start a career yet.

He had a completely different career mapped out – he was planning to study towards a degree in electrical engineering, but this was “turned upside down” by the death of his father.

Only 18 at the time, Maclean put his studies on hold to help his mother out on the family’s 16 hectare poultry farm in Swanson, west of Auckland. “I was having a lot of difficulty studying and running the farm. It was inevitable that something had to give. The farm was the priority, so I made the decision to favour it for a couple of years.”

But farming was not in Maclean’s blood and he eventually decided to find a career that was. “I wanted a career where I could progress without spending years with no income. Retail provided an opportunity to go in unqualified and progress through without a formal qualification.”

Within a couple of years at McKenzies, Maclean was running his own store and then moved to the company’s head office in Wellington as a buyer.

Eventually he became the chain’s national apparel buying team manager.

His experience at McKenzies gave him a “relatively good perspective of New Zealand manufacturing and business,” says Maclean.

It was also here that he started getting involved in computing. “I introduced IT-based sales reporting to the company, resulting in dramatic changes in the sales mix in favour of fashionable apparel. McKenzies showed me the value of IT as a means of controlling large quantities of data, both in terms of processing and timeliness.”

In 1981, armed with a redundancy payout, he took the leap of starting his own business – Maclean Apparel, which specialised in manufacturing womenswear. “It was always an ambition to have my own business – there’s nothing like a bit of redundancy to force you to make a decision and to provide a small amount of capital to get you started.”

At the time, the country was well protected against imports and clothing manufacturing was a viable local business. However, Maclean knew he would have to exit the industry when changes to the New Zealand tariff scheme were introduced in 1990.

In 1991, Maclean started selling computers after being told by his reseller he would be a natural fit for the industry. “I was looking for a new career to follow the rag trade. He encouraged me to the view that my skills with computers would be a logical next step.”

As fate would have it, Maclean’s brother, Kevin, who was a Novell consultant in Sydney, was ready to return home and in 1993 the brothers started Maclean Computing.

While his brother brought technical expertise to the venture, Allan provided corporate nous that enabled him to help customers understand the business benefits of computing. “A lot of companies didn’t understand what PCs were capable of doing. It was an opportunity to bring a business approach to the industry.

“The ability to gain a competitive advantage through processing a large quantity of data was for me, at the time, an essential ingredient in any computer system.”

Maclean’s initial ambition was to run to run a single-level reporting company with 12 people. “I visualised a company where life would be completely stress free. However, the nature of the industry is that scale is required to provide expertise in various facets of the business. To have expertise in-depth, to take your business to another level, meant having more people.”

He believes that while computing has become simpler at the front end, it is now more complex in the back room. As such, he does not envy start-ups in the industry today. “They have to instantly have available a great breadth of skill sets. There is a significant investment required to attain and retain the broad technical skill sets required to run a complete infrastructure specialist company.”

However, Maclean acknowledges he does not have a deep understanding of technology himself, but rather of its application in business. “I have a grasp of technology from a business sense, but I am fortunate to be surrounded by enthusiasts who are able to help me translate developments into their business relevance.”

To run a successful company three sets of skills are essential – technical, business and financial, says Maclean. “Plenty of guys have gone broke who have done a great a job. Doing a great job and getting paid for it requires those three skills – they form a tripod on which any business relies heavily. It is important to surround yourself with people who provide the skills you do not.”

The retail world also embedded a customer service philosophy in Maclean that is now ingrained in the company’s psyche. “In a retail environment ‘the customer is always right’ and ‘whatever it takes’ became part of my psyche. If this meant we had to come back from holiday to rescue a situation, you did it because it was inbuilt. That was a very important part of getting the business thriving.”

Although his company is much larger and more complex than he initially imagined, he has never been tempted to bow. “I love this industry – it is fresh and is constantly reinventing itself, it is largely appreciated by its clients because you are helping them do better.”

In fact, he says he has the ambition and opportunity to double the business in a reasonably short timeframe by growth and by acquisition. “I can’t believe how many opportunities are around – the excitement of taking the company to another level is in front of me now.”

Away from the office, Maclean leads a fairly quiet life, with a lot of his time devoted to his five grandchildren and three children, who all live no more than 10 minutes away from him.

He also makes time for a bit of fishing, but then it’s back to work. “I did not set out to be a workaholic – it’s just the way it turned out!”

Q + A

What is your favourite gadget?

My Windows Mobile 6 phone and my Ryobi One+ portable drill – both perfect combinations of form and function.

What is your favourite website?

Google – essential in every aspect of my life, iTunes – it has restored my love of music.

What is your favourite sport?

Tennis, rugby, but just watching, thanks!

What is your favourite cocktail?

It has got to be a glass of wine – maybe a smooth Shiraz, or a fresh and fruity sauvignon blanc.

If you could have a cup of coffee with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?

Winston Churchill for his leadership in adversity.

What has been the most important technological advance in IT?

Windows – it brought ease of use to the mass market.

What book is on your bedside table?

The Business of Changing the World by Marc Benioff. But the ultimate read is Ken Follett’s only non-fiction book: On Wings of Eagles.

If you were not in technology, what would you be doing?

Might have bought a Paper Plus franchise, though more probably working in a national retail buying office.

Who is/was your mentor?

The late Brian Bensley (pulled me out of the crowd in my 20s). Is: Ian Howard (consultant and friend).

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