At the age of 28, Max McNeill turned his back on a glamorous life in Las Vegas to set up his own technology company, selling memory products. In the 22 years since then, he has grown and evolved Ultima Business Solutions into one of the UK’s leading IT infrastructure partners. This year, its turnover is expected to exceed £80 million, and headcount will exceed 300. But McNeill has not only built a booming business – thanks to the success of Ultima he has also made a name for himself in the horse racing world. McNeill told Eleanor Harris how his business and racing are inextricably linked, and why he’ll never sell Ultima.
Max McNeill is founder and chairman of Ultima Business Solutions, based in Reading. He was born in 1962 in Blackburn, Lancashire, and moved around the country during his education, before gaining a HND in business studies. He moved to the south east in 1983 with a view to becoming an accountant, but decided it wasn’t the career for him and moved into IT sales, working for Digital, Rapid Recall, and then Digital again, having been headhunted back, before founding Ultima in 1990. Today, Ultima has 280 employees and achieved turnover of £67m to March 31, 2012. The independent company provides IT solutions and services – ranging from remote management to licensing – to private and public sector clients, which include The Daily Telegraph and Tarmac. Among its many technical awards, Ultima is a seven times Microsoft Gold Certified Partner. McNeill owns eight race horses, including Walkon, Grumeti and Handazan. Ultima is also a major jump racing sponsor, sponsoring races at Cheltenham Festival and Newbury as well as leading trainer Alan King’s yard. McNeill is married with two children, lives in Sonning, Berkshire, and supports Blackburn Rovers.
Why and how did you set up the business? What was the inspiration?
I always wanted to work for myself, build a company of my own and make some money. In 1990, the timing was right. I was 28, single, I’d got a good background in IT sales and I saw an opportunity with a friend to set up a business selling memory products. Instead of supplying the manufacturers’ own memory, we’d supply third-party memory, which was significantly cheaper. We saw a niche for doing that. At the same time, Digital, a big American corporation, had offered me a job in Las Vegas, and it was one of those crossroads: Las Vegas sounded quite appealing to a 28-year-old, but I really believed in this business, and I wanted to work on my own. I didn’t have any money, I was always in an overdraft position, but I needed to put in £5000 to set it up. I was at a wedding with one of my best old school friends and I told his father about my plans and he lent me the £5000 – without that, I probably wouldn’t have done it. For six years I halved my salary and worked all hours, but within the first six months we had already sold loads of memory and were booming.
From there, how did the company grow and evolve?
We were just selling components for the first two years and then started selling PCs and systems, but we realised we had to get into other things and offer more than just product. We quickly identified that selling services was the way forward, so we invested in technical people and building up our services business. When we moved to our current offices in 1997 and the costs went up overnight, it was a wake-up call to speed up that process and take the business to the next level, and that took us from being a “mid-teens” organisation to one turning over more than £20m. From there, we went through the dot-com boom and decided to get into remote management and set up our own 24 x 7 technical support centre. The objective was to build up a stream of business with annually recurring revenue, as well as helping to develop longer term contracts with customers. So, we’re not just a reseller, we build long-term relationships with our customers and offer them support, services, skills and knowledge. We got into managed services very early, making significant investments, and over the 22 years, that’s been our strategy, constantly looking for new opportunities to reinvest our profits. That’s how we have got to where we are today.
Is that how you would account for your success overall?
There are two things: one is nurturing the long-term relationships with our customers, but the most important thing here is people. There are over 90 people who have been here for 10 years or more, some for 20 years. We’re a people-driven business, we look after them, we motivate them, we give them a career path, we’re ambitious, we try to run it in a sensible way, while our strategy is to grow organically. Recently there’s been a lot of consolidation in our marketplace, where companies like Ultima are being taken over. The problem with so many acquistions, however, is insufficient thought is given to culture conflicts with an increased risk of losing your number one asset, your staff. We have certainly been able to benefit from this situation and have been able to offer top-notch consultants and sales people a stable and supportive environment in which to progress and develop. We’ve been very successful in this regard, and that has contributed significantly to our growth over the last few years: our turnover was mid-£40m; this year we’re heading for over £80m. And our headcount two years ago was less than 220; at the end of this year it will be over 300.
You have said that growing the business has given you the opportunity to get involved in horse racing, as an owner – tell me more?
Racing is my passion, and sport is in my blood – my dad was a professional golfer and a mad passionate racing man and football fan – and I’d always wanted to own a racehorse, but there was no point in doing it until I had enough resources to be able to do it properly. In 2005 I bought my first racehorse, Jackella, and I’ve now got eight in total. Again, you have got to reinvest. We’ve had some success with the horses, but from jump racing, Ultima has got a fantastic box at Cheltenham, which is used for entertaining both customers and staff, we can all get involved. Ultima doesn’t own the horses, financially they are separate, but any corporate entertaining and sponsorship we do is all around racing. I am very fortunate that the success of Ultima has allowed me to follow my passion in horses and build my dream house overlooking the Thames, which recently won a RIBA award for architecture. Equally, through my racing contacts, Ultima has benefitted and its profile has increased greatly through advertising, sponsorship and corporate entertainment. It has been a win-win and the continued investments keep me focused on helping to take the business to the next level.
So it’s very much two-way traffic, then – the business allows you to do the racing and building, but in turn they feed back into the business?
Yes, everything is interlinked. We have a property business which is separate from Ultima, yet rents the buildings to Ultima, and in turn has allowed us to make a couple more investments, but it’s all down to Ultima. The key question I get asked is “Are you going to sell the business?” I get offers all the time. There are many reasons why I wouldn’t sell this business: in no particular order, one is because I’d like my family to be involved in it going forward, I think that would be a great thing for them to do, if they want to do it and it is right for the business. Two, it’s a great business and it keeps me motivated. Three, because we have no external shareholders, and there has been no pressure to report short-term profits, we have always taken the long view and have a better business with unlimited potential as a consequence. It’s such a great business and it’s unique. Ultima is my life and I could never give it up. All these people who work here are more important than anything, you don’t give that up lightly.
What are your ambitions for the future? Are there more business ideas in you?
The strategy of the business is to remain independently-owned; all the shares are held within the company and, in an ideal world, I’d like to keep it that way. I can’t see myself investing in another business because there are so many areas in this business to invest in. All the good business ideas I have are related to Ultima – there is so much scope! We did acquire a company, now called Ultima Risk Management, and that was a very successful investment. There are so many opportunities for Ultima and the plan is to reinvest and continue to grow the company organically. In fact I haven’t got the mental capacity to look at another opportunity that doesn’t involve Ultima, because with the time that takes, along with the time I spend with my family, running my son’s cricket team, the horses, working on the house, playing golf and going to the gym, I just haven’t got time. I have no real ambition to set up another business with somebody else running it – I really can’t afford to take my eye off the ball. While I always keep one ear to the ground, I don’t want to spend time and energy on something that I can’t give 100% to – I need to do it full on.
If you couldn’t get to work, what would your ideal day involve? Racing, golf, or something else?
This afternoon, my lad is playing football against his big rival school. Where would I rather be, other than watching him play football for the first team? Nowhere. And the other one would have to be a day at Cheltenham festival, in the Ultima box, with a group of good people, watching horses – you can’t beat that. There’s a big adrenaline rush, it’s fantastic to be there. That’s what gives you a buzz, that’s what you work for.
What would you consider your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement is building this business to what it is, enabling the best part of 300 people to develop and grow, creating a business that is debt free, that’s got some great customers, that’s got huge potential to grow and is still hungry – that’s got to be the greatest achievement. When Grumeti wins the Champion Hurdle, that might rival it. My tip is Grumeti for the Champion Hurdle at 25 to 1, definitely worth a punt!
Details: Ultima Business Solutions website