Professor Gary McEwan, CEO of Elevator – the largest private sector provider of business support in Scotland – outlines the organisation’s new focus on his home town of Glasgow and how his ambition is to inspire a new generation of business trailblazers.
You can take the boy out of Glasgow, but you can’t take Glasgow out of the boy. All Glaswegians feel the strong pull of their native city no matter how much time, distance and experience separates them – and it’s no different with me.
I arrived in Aberdeen in 2008 to take over as Elevator’s CEO; 13 years on… we’ve designed a model which activates Scotland’s entrepreneurial drive and gives back.
I’m proud of what we’ve achieved with Elevator from our Centres for Entrepreneurship in Aberdeen and Dundee, and business support hubs in Fraserburgh and Perth.
We help over 3,500 entrepreneurs a year and generate millions of pounds in economic value-add; we’ve achieved something of a revolution as the biggest private sector business support organisation in the country with a team of over 100 based in 22 locations. We’ve accomplished all of this without any presence in the Central Belt.
But things have started to change. Earlier this year we acquired Glasgow-based tech consultancy, Targeting Innovation, and launched our inaugural Glasgow Creative Accelerator as part of Glasgow City Council’s Growth Business Framework Programme.
Elevator is entering a new era. Now is the opportune time to unveil Elevator Glasgow; the opportunity is enormous, the potential is great, it is very exciting and very personal.
I spent much of my childhood in Castlemilk in Glasgow, one of the big post-war housing schemes. Built high above the Clyde on the Cathkin Braes, it has spectacular views of the city and was made famous in the Glasgow comedy folk song ‘I’m a Skyscraper Wean’.
My granny had a mobile shop, a van that went around the retail-deprived housing scheme. She sold milk, bread, carrots – the staples of life. Working with her in the van was my first taste of enterprise, my introduction to the entrepreneurial way of life.
My granny must have given me a good start because I went on to become UK Entrepreneur of the Year, sold my business at the age of 27, won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion, became Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Dundee and most recently was appointed Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Aberdeen. All of this despite leaving school at 15 and not being remotely academic.
The last 20 years I’ve focused on supporting businesses through their journey. It’s similar to the transition from being a player to a coach and I love it. But I have unfinished business in Glasgow: I was born and raised there yet I’ve never plied my trade there. As a teenager of the 80s, I remember clearly when Glasgow went through its transformation and cleaned up its image, literally, to put the No Mean City reputation of slums and razor gangs behind it.
As part of the ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ campaign, one of the most successful urban regeneration and rebranding projects in history, Lord Provost Michael Kelly cleaned all the tenements and glorious civic buildings so that we could once more see the honey-coloured and rose-red sandstone that is a Glasgow hallmark.
The Garden Festival and the European City of Culture accolades followed. The city was on a roll of dynamism and reinvention. That spirit and energy stayed with me. It showed how harnessing the civic pride, the underlying work ethic and creativity of a city could be game-changing.
But for all I belong to Glasgow, I still recognise that its potential remains largely latent and untapped. That’s because, for all its gallusness, the surface of its vibrant entrepreneurial sub-culture – that thrives in cities like Boston, Toronto, Seattle, Stockholm and London’s Silicon roundabout – has only just been scratched.
Throughout my time at Elevator I’ve seen Dundee really spread its wings and get its mojo back, while in Aberdeen, I’ve witnessed the pros and cons of having a regional economy dominated by a sector that is continually being buffeted by global markets.
Great strides are being made to deliver a renaissance built upon diversification, but I can’t help thinking this should have happened decades ago. Despite this, with Elevator in Aberdeen City and shire, we’ve achieved 15% of the country’s supported start-ups while having just 8% of the population – something around 1380 start-ups over the last year. Glasgow has the potential, the energy, the imagination and the work ethic to double or triple the number of start-ups it creates. I get mesmerised when I consider the impact we – Elevator – could have by unleashing our ambition and methodology to the City.
This is just the latest chapter in the story. My home city was built on enterprise. It made its first real fortunes from tobacco and then cotton, trades commemorated in the city’s street names – Jamaica Street, St Vincent Street, Virginia Street. When the age of cotton started to unravel Glasgow picked itself up again and piled headlong into the shipbuilding and heavy engineering revolution of the 19th century.
Pioneers like Robert Napier were typical of the entrepreneurial spirit of the times and role models for today’s entrepreneurs. Followed by leaders like Elder and Pearce, whose names still grace Govan’s landmarks, he helped create one of the most dominant and innovative integrated industrial complexes the world has ever seen.
It’s fashionable today to talk about business clusters and economic ecosystems; well, the Clyde had the mother of all of these, building over half the world’s shipping tonnage during its heyday. Together with the Tennents’ giant, St Rollox chemical works and the huge Springburn locomotive factories, the shipyards global dominance was the high-water mark of the Glasgow economic miracle – so far.
Glasgow’s history is one of identifying the next big thing and exploiting it. That possibility exists again in the digital age. The Glaswegian commercial tradition has always been about investing in emerging industries and technological innovation.
In the 19th century, it was Watt’s steam engine and Neilson’s blast furnace. Today and tomorrow it will be in digital technology, creative industries, bio-nano technology, photonics, engineering design, advance manufacturing and finance.
Elevator is already making massive strides in supporting entrepreneurs and SMEs in Glasgow and its surrounding areas. We are committed to re-invest our time, resources and surpluses into the growth of the regional economies. This is simply just the beginning.
My aim… to do more of what we are good at, make our mark on the City’s entrepreneurs and fully embed Elevator into Glasgow’s latest transformation, to – once again, be proud of my city.
Experienced team bring business ideas to life
SCOTTISH Enterprise’s latest economic statistics, dated January 2021, highlighted that in 2020 there were 364,310 private sector enterprises in Scotland with 361,875 being classed as SMEs and providing 1.2 million jobs.
Scotland has an appetite for entrepreneurship, and it is clear that Scotland as an economy has a valued level of support for high potential business opportunities. But the road to business success is never a straight A-to-B route.
Entrepreneurs by their very nature see the world slightly differently from everyone else. Where others see challenge, they see opportunity. Where others see competition, they see validation. When others see failure, they see learning. Entrepreneurs think differently.
So, who do these entrepreneurs turn to for support on their journey to success? An organisation that understands them. As one of Scotland’s leading private business support organisations Elevator is dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs, inventors, disruptors, game-changers and inspiring and thriving business leaders.
From technology to tourism, food and drink to financial services, the organisation works to help Scottish businesses of all sizes to start, innovate and grow – all through their unique entrepreneurial approach.
Elevator believes that reinvestment into communities to create the entrepreneurs of tomorrow, together with the creation of an ‘entrepreneurial culture’, is paramount to unravelling a support system that has the potential to truly unlock ambition and opportunities across Scotland.
As Scotland’s largest provider of Business Gateway services, Elevator supports some 3500 new businesses to start up each year. The social enterprise is also Scotland’s largest provider of business accelerators offering bespoke support through its seven diverse programmes.
Elevator’s entrepreneurial culture is central to its success. Built on the effective delivery of Business Gateway services, it has created a social enterprise model that has enabled reinvestment of almost £600,000 into the Scottish Economy, generating £6.6million of value.
The organisation strives to create a culture of learning and maximises its impact by giving back to the regions it operates in, believing that a vibrant national economy is driven by an entrepreneurial mindset.
Its centres for Entrepreneurship in the North East and Tayside, where clients can access a wide range of support, have enabled Elevator to become a major player in supporting entrepreneurs.
In the last 12 months, Elevator has entered a new era of growth. It has turbo charged its offerings and expanded services to support budding entrepreneurs, start-ups and growing business in Glasgow and its surrounding areas.
In 2020, Elevator was selected by Glasgow City Council as the largest supplier for its Business Growth programme. Its significant role has delivered two main achievements:
– The launch of the inaugural Glasgow Creative Accelerator. From film, television and media to gaming, design, visual arts and fashion Glasgow’s Creative industries will benefit from Elevator’s experience to coach and develop participants to their greatest potential. The 12-week inaugural cohort is due to kick-off in March this year and will support high-potential start-ups.
– Elevator’s team of experienced consultants deliver services related to leadership, finance, design, innovation, internationalisation, digital and business resilience, supporting the delivery of sustainable growth and improving business start-up and survival rates across Glasgow.
Elevator is on a mission for success. Its vision is clear – a national, connected approach that will stimulate and support the development of an innovative, pioneering, progressive and entrepreneurial society.