Few people have Sir Alex Ferguson’s attributes. Yet there are gurus from every walk of life who wax lyrical on the theories of building winning teams. Then there are retired sporting legends who make lucrative earnings on the corporate dinners circuit recounting past triumphs. In all, there remains a massive appetite on hearing how it’s done. Jim Rae is a practical exemplar of actually getting things done in business on a daily basis. No waffle. A former professional footballer with Dundee FC who strives to be a winner, Rae has a hatred of losing and is a tenacious warrior behind his ready smile. He heads up Elevate, a creative document solution business in Edinburgh with global customers that is weathering the economic storm.
Rae, now 41, is a tall, striking figure who keeps himself in trim and exudes the air of a team captain who can inspire and is prepared to lead from the front. He’s also the sort of guy you would not want to mess with on a dark night. He is a down-to-earth boss who is yet to reach his prime. While he is aware of his own strengths and weaknesses, he has a major work ethic and has developed a keen vision of where his industry and customers are going. He’s also working on a major UK project that he’d rather keep under wraps for now, but this will hopefully be on beta-test sometime in October.
“I’ve no idea what an entrepreneur really is,” he says. “If it’s about being good at networking, building relationships, spotting opportunities that others don’t spot, well, that’s probably one of my strengths.” Elevate, with a turnover of several million a year, employs 35 people at its base in Sighthill, a bustling industrial estate set up in 1950s with its close links to the city bypass and the M8 to Glasgow. Sitting in Elevate’s “Inspiration Room”, there’s no question that football remains a powerful metaphor for Jim Rae’s business life with signed Pele and Henrik Larsson football jerseys adorning the wall.
“You’ve got to put your trust in people and believe that they are always doing the right things,” he says. “I’ve got a fantastic group of people and I’m proud of all of them. They put in a lot of effort. That starts at board level, including my colleagues, Grant Laing, the commercial director; Yvonne Hurry, finance director; Elaine Stroud, our IT manager; Paul Ranaldi, head of account management, and production manager Andy Colbridge.
“They all work tirelessly for this business. Nothing is too much trouble and that attitude drives the company when the big contracts kick off.” Rae notes that the business leader and the entrepreneur tends to gets all the media attention, the plaudits and the interviews.
“That is only one cog of a pretty well-oiled wheel,” he says. “The people who make it happen are not generally the business leaders. They are part of the process, but the really hard work is done by other people within the business. That’s not me; there are a lot of other fantastic individuals in here who make sure things go according to plan. Without them, you don’t have any entrepreneurs. I’m not the only person in this business. I might be the front for the company, but the real hard work is done downstairs behind the scenes; they are the real stars at Elevate.” Every business leader pays lip service to their staff, but Rae actually knows that employees, such as Brian Blair who features in Elevate’s recent staff magazine, make the business tick. Brian is a print finisher who has been in the company for 17 years. What does he think is the best part of working, he is asked? “Working with such a great bunch of people and we always have a laugh.” “I’ve genuinely got the easy job,” says Jim Rae, pointing through the Inspiration Room window down onto a shop floor.
“I’ve got so much respect for those who are working their socks off for the business and the clients.” After leaving Forrester High School in Edinburgh in 1984, Rae went off to become an apprentice footballer with Dundee on £27.50p a week, then in the Premier League. He played three seasons in the top flight under managers Archie Knox and Jocky Scott, two great sporting motivators. He turned out as a centre half or left back and was at Dundee at the same time as goalkeeper Bobby Geddes, playing at the same time as Tosh McKinlay and Colin Hendry, the former Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City and Rangers player and one of Scotland’s most revered defenders, who captained the country in the 1998 World Cup.
“I learned pretty quickly that I wasn’t good enough to make the top level,” he says. “There were better, more skilful players than me and so I had to move down a grade to keep playing – but I had no regrets. Professional football taught me about discipline – that’s something that’s held me in good stead – and working for the greater good of the team.” “It also gives you a real winning mentally, much to Laura, my wife’s, annoyance when we play family games. I have to win at all costs. I keep saying that to my kids; there’s no point playing unless you are trying to win.
“If you’re going to do something, you have to do it the best you can, all the time. That’s not to say that you will always be the best or always win, but as long as you strive to do that, then no-one can complain if you’ve not achieved that.” Laura and his children Martin, 16, and Lucy, 13, are at the bedrock of Rae’s success.
“Any activity by an entrepreneur or business leader, to do their job well, takes up a huge amount of time and energy,” he says. “If you don’t have support from your wife and family then I can only imagine that it would be extremely difficult. I’m lucky in that I have a fantastic amount of support which allows me to come in early then go out with clients in the evening, which can be fairly regularly.” With two spells as a part-timer with Arbroath, then Cowdenbeath and latterly ten years at Spartans where his 15 minutes of fame was to captain the now-legendary team that made it through to the Scottish Cup fourth round against Premier League Livingston.
After leaving full-time football, Rae joined Xerox Business Service as a business development manager and then sales manager for Scotland and the North East of England. He undertook their management training programme, listened and learned about digital print and how to handle demanding customers who always wanted their work done in the shortest of timescales. He left to join The Stationery Office (TSO), responsible for £20m of government print contracts before joining Waddies, the veteran Edinburgh print company. Still in his early 30s, Rae was headhunted to join Docuserve in January 2002 which was set up and owned by entrepreneur Margaret Lang.
Rae, as sales and marketing director, and Margaret developed the business, but it reached a crossroads with the board keen to concentrate on outsourcing office management and administration services. Rae took on Docuserve’s digital print division in a management buy-out in July 2005, while the other division was rebranded as Intelligent Office. In the intervening five years, he has steered the business through the toughest recession in living memory and when some of his major customers hit the buffers.
Some predicted that Elevate would have bitten the dust too. But Rae is a grafter. “We never made anyone redundant during the recent economic downturn,” he says. “We kept all of our staff. I remember our chairman Bob Dryburgh, encouraging me and saying ‘we just need to hang in there’. He said that things would turn around again one day, and they have done.
“Of course, I don’t think the tough times are over. There’s quite a bit of fall-out ahead for the next year-and-a-half. It’s going to be tough for most sectors, I don’t think anyone is going to escape that.” But Rae says this creates opportunities and his team are flexible enough – and hungry enough – to grab them.
He says: “We’ve tried to diversify and to add that little bit extra to our service offerings. We’ve done pretty well with this so far. There’s a tendency when things are going badly to drop your prices, get as much work through the door as you can, but it’s maybe the wrong work.
“We never did that; we stuck to our cost structure, offering solutions that we believed in. We stuck to our value proposition.” But he also kept close to the customer, even when they weren’t ready to pay for Elevate’s services.
“We made a conscious effort to be a shoulder to cry on, to be a friend and give them advice and help,” he says. “It was a big investment of time for us, but it was the right thing to do. It has started to pay dividends because we’ve won a couple of very good contracts on the back of fantastic working relationships with our clients.” In its early years, Elevate carried out regular work for one of the largest banks in the world, with its global head office close by.
This dropped away when the bank collapsed, although some has returned because of Rae’s tenacity in holding onto the coat tails, but there are new players in this sector that have been able to fill a potentially disastrous void. “Most of the large financial services organisations are still very good – and long-standing – customers of Elevate,” he says. “They’ve been a big supporter of our business. What’s important is the way you manage the relationship with your clients.
“I took the decision that there isn’t a lot of new business out there in the current climate and it’s very difficult to get brand-new wins, so while everyone else was off trying to do that, we kept closer to our clients. We wanted to make sure that we were there for them when things picked up.” Another major win is ICS – or International Correspondence Schools – the online learning company that trains about 45,000 people a year. ICS, which uses personalised learning plans, lecture notes and resources that target the requirements of each individual learner, signed a three-year deal with Elevate in March this year.
“We’ve been able to help them adapt the learning process for ICS and how it is delivered to students,” says Rae. “We store all their textbooks, produce their CDs and manage their storage process. We send out in the region of 16 million prints per year. And we have helped them re-arrange all their ordering process.” They are now looking at creating a highly personalised prospectus rather than a 300-page document with every single course. Elevate is automating the process and with an end document only relevant to the individual who has ordered it, Rae believes the impact will be greater and the returns in terms of student numbers will be higher.
He says: “It’s been a real revelation for them and for us. We’ve built such as strong relationship.” One of the largest bio and pharmaceutical research and commercial organisations in the world is also a long-standing major customer.
“We were chosen to do their business stationery,” says Rae. “They have 23,000 staff in 60 countries and work needs to be translated into multiple languages. Our online ordering platform receives orders from everywhere except the United States.” Elevate also produce all the housing sales particulars for ESPC, the Edinburgh property centre, and with his £500,000 leased Xerox digital press running 24 hours a day, seven days a week at the moment, he’s contemplating another machine sometime in the future. Jim Rae is also an ambassador for Winning Entrepreneurs, an organisation created two years ago by Belinda Roberts who set up specialist recruitment and training business Optimum Proactive Training which she sold four years later.
She is now a keen supporter of wealth creators in Edinburgh through Winning Entrepreneurs. There are five ambassadors, including Edinburgh property and IT entrepreneur Shaf Rasul, well-known for his role on BBC’s Dragons’ Den online, and Paul Atkinson, the serial Scottish recruitment entrepreneur. “Belinda runs the company and we are there as a support,” says Rae. “We are always looking for the right kind of people who want to join. We’ve all got our own businesses and we’ll support the events. It’s very much a networking and support group which is great for smaller to mid-sized companies. They are very entrepreneurial and generally Scottish.
“If you’re a business leader you have an inbred desire to succeed, to be better than anyone else. If you don’t have that, it is very difficult for your company to develop and grow. The guys I’ve met are absolute winners.
“Scotland is a hugely entrepreneurial place, but very understated.” Jim Rae, who is also a member of the more established and much-admired Entrepreneurial Exchange, says that there are plenty of “phenomenal” companies in Scotland run by energetic people who have opportunities to develop and grow.
“It’s amazing how many smart people there are sitting on our doorstep,” he says. Jim Rae still takes his football seriously, too. Now he is assistant manager to Mark Lamb at Coldstream, who play in the East of Scotland League First Division. He even put on his boots for the first two games of the season to help out his young team.
“Mark’s got the technical aspect with all the coaching badges and I’ve got the former professional background,” he says. “We work really well together. “I’ve not really got the pace to play any more, so I’m very happy to coach and develop the young guys coming through. It’s a fabulous club to be involved in; the town and the committee really get behind the team. There is huge passion about their football team.” When Hearts played a pre-season friendly in the Borders town that overlooks England across the Tweed, there were more than 500 who turned up to watch Rae’s team. “They are some of the friendliest people I have come across and it’s a joy to be involved with a community like Coldstream,” he says.
“The work behind the scenes at the club is fantastic and I tell the players they must never take any of that for granted.” That’s another of Jim Rae’s winning business mantras; never take anything for granted. Indeed, another practical business nugget worth sharing.