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Success as a family business: no change, no chance

By Maitland Mackie - Posted on 30 August 2013

Following his recent appearance as speaker at Strathclyde Business School’s inaugural Family Enterprise Lecture, Maitland Mackie reflects on a lifetime at the helm of one of Scotland’s best known and most innovative family businesses, Mackie’s of Scotland…

Family businesses are as much a part of Scotland’s heritage as tartan, tablet and the Tam o’ Shanter, they’re ingrained in our collective DNA and, as they make up close to three-quarters of all businesses in Scotland, they are of enormous importance to our economy.

Which is why, having spent my entire life within a family business, I was honoured to be asked to share my experiences at Strathclyde Business School’s inaugural family enterprise lecture, in partnership with the Scottish Family Business Association.

From its beginnings as a dairy farm, established by my grandfather in 1912, through my father’s, my own and now my children’s time in charge, Mackie’s of Scotland’s fundamental character has been shaped by innovation.

When falling demand for semi-skimmed and skimmed milk left us with a surplus of cream in the 80’s, our ‘no change, no chance’ philosophy was behind the decision to move into ice cream and, later, to sell our remaining milk business to Robert Wiseman Dairies.

When we wanted to introduce new perspectives and refresh our approach, we made it policy for family members to gain outside management experience before taking on senior positions and removed barriers for non-family members. We also changed our management practices, moving away from “Dae fit yer telt” to adopt an “Investors in people” model, to promote communication and creativity.

However, it’s not always been plain sailing and like all family businesses, we’re not impervious to the unique challenges that working with relatives and those close to you can create.

The entire Mackie family, including those not directly involved in the business, meet once a year for a family council for this very reason. By taking the time to discuss even the smallest of issues in this way, we’ve been really successful in ensuring they don’t become problems in the future.

Perhaps one of the greatest issues for family enterprises, and one we’ve certainly addressed at family councils, is the sometimes prickly issue of succession. As I know all too well, having gone through it myself just over a decade ago, handing over the reins to the next generation can be tough.

You can spend a great deal of time and resources on succession planning, to ensure the transition is smooth and future leaders have the necessary skills and support to take over, but it will all be for nothing if the outgoing head of the business won’t let go. There comes a point when you have to realise the “bairns” are capable of looking after themselves.

For Mackie’s of Scotland, my taking a step back paid off with the launch of Mackie’s potato crisps in 2009 and diversification into renewable energy.  But it doesn’t stop there, with a move into chocolate on the cards, I’m sure there’s much more innovation from Mackie’s of Scotland to come.

What can we do to support family businesses? How can we start to develop a national family business strategy? Let us know in the comments below…   

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