Interview with CEO of National Security Firm as he celebrates 20 years with the business

From humble beginnings GMS group has grown to employ 500 people, turnover in excess of £14 million a year and is widely known for its innovation, excellence, and company culture.

This month, GMS Group’s CEO, Neil Male is celebrating 20 years with the business; 15 of which have been at the helm.

To mark the occasion, I sat down with Neil to answer 10 questions reflecting on the past decade, his experience, and the company as a whole.

Here’s what he had to say.

1. When you joined GMS Group 20 years ago, did you think you’d be HERE 20 years later?

Part of me wants to say no, but the visionary in me screams YES!

I feel honoured to be where we are now. Twenty years ago, I was just getting started with GMS and I was eager to step up to the challenge of working for a small, independently owned company where I could make my mark.

When I started out, I took on the role of admin manager and focussed mainly on systems, processes and implementing software to make things more efficient. I also upset a few people with my bolshie ways, but the owners seemed to like my way of getting things done.

Within five years, our turnover had grown from £200k to £2.5 million and I was taking more of a lead on the sales side of the business. I’d had no training – I was just passionate about our ability to deliver, knowing our processes and efficient ways of working were way ahead of the competition.

2005 was the year that GMS Group’s future was emblazoned in my mind. I re-mortgaged the house soon after my wife and I, Emma, had our son Jack and acquired a 33% stake in the business. I literally put everything on red because I knew that I could make GMS Group a formidable organisation…and I have!

Following four additional management buy outs, raising a total of £1million over a ten-year period, Emma and I became full owners of GMS Group in 2015. By then, we had our second child, Lily who is now 12, so I had another driving force behind me. My brother, Andy, also became a shareholder in a small division of the group and we are still a family owned business today.

2. What’s been most surprising about the journey so far?

Going back to the early years, I felt like I knew everything I needed to know and what I didn’t know, I could learn quickly. Then, as the business started to grow at pace, I began to understand how much I needed to learn, and I had to do work on myself to get there. As a leader, as a business owner, as an entrepreneur, I had to grow and develop.

In 2014 I enrolled onto a peer-to-peer mentoring programme with Vistage, the world’s largest executive coaching organisation for small and medium sized business. Through this unique programme, I got to work alongside owners of global businesses as well as meeting some incredibly talented people with expertise in business growth, commercial and private finance and marketing professionals. I have kept in touch with and still rely on a number of these people for their guidance – after all, this is the first time I have owned a business and although I may think it sometimes, I don’t know everything!

Vistage gave me the confidence to work with my team to plan our 2020 vision and since then the business has gone from strength to strength and I have realised the importance of getting the right team around me so they can run the business, each of them doing what they do best.

The journey hasn’t always been easy. It’s taken courage, passion, boldness and perseverance.

3. What drives you?

My family and to create a legacy! I am driven by good health, happiness and financial stability for my family and my team. But, I am also now in a fortunate position where I can let my incredible team run GMS and put some of my skills and time into other organisations that I care deeply about.

Most recently, I have been appointed board member of Kaleidoscope Plus Group, a charity who promote positive mental health and well-being. I have also accepted an interim role with Kidderminster Harriers FC as CEO, taking me back to my football routes. I never thought in a million years I would do anything outside of GMS, but it’s testament to my team that I can juggle these roles.

All my time and energy is now focussed on being the best CEO, the best leader, the best mentor I can be, so I can continue to create opportunities and help my interests grow and thrive.

4. Can you talk about the value of your team some more?

Really, they are the engine of GMS Group.

My Operations Director, Ben Neate has recently completed his MBA with distinction, he’s a clever guy and now fronts the relationship with all of our key customers. My HR Director, Rachel Freeman started working with me 14 years ago as a business development manager, soon progressing to sales manager then sales director, but after we struggled to find a pragmatic approach to HR, she agreed to head up the HR team and has recently achieved her CIPD level 7. Having a HR Director with a sales background has given us such an edge in our people driven business, because she knows the benefit to the customers of looking after our people.

I spotted Lisa Nicholson, now my Commercial Director eight years ago when she worked for a membership organisation we were part of and I really valued her input into our business and she clearly had some invaluable skills so I tried to suss out whether she’d consider coming to work with me.  At that time, she was committed to her role and the timing wasn’t right but just over two years ago, out of the blue she called me and asked if the offer still stood so we met for a coffee and the rest is history as they say.

Andrea Ryall, my FD has worked with me for 12 years and started out as an account assistant, working her way through the ranks to now head up the team. She keeps a tight rein on us financially and because she started out at a grass roots level, there is no pulling the wool over her eyes.

Andy Male, Director of the Recovery division, however has worked in other areas of the business on the journey has worked with me some 12 years now. The “Quiet” one people would say but equally has the same ethics and values as myself and has been a good sounding board for me on this journey.

Having people who have grown inside the company is priceless and my team really are incredible.

5. There’s a lot of discussion and emphasis about creating or changing culture.  Because, really, the truth is that people can come or go, but culture remains. What does the culture of GMS Group mean to you and how important is it?

GMS Group’s culture was definitely consciously-shaped. I have continually invested in the personal development of my team and I am particularly passionate about helping people.

Our people are one of our biggest strengths. And they ultimately set the culture. Simply put, GMS would not have achieved such growth and success without our employees – who are at the heart of what we do.  We offer a range of benefits to our employees which includes an Employee Assistance Programme with access to a stress counselling helpline. In addition, two of our senior managers have also recently completely their Mental Health First Aid training.

6. You’ve touched on social responsibility a couple of times; can you tell me a bit more about the causes you support as an organisation and why that’s important to you?

Social responsibility runs right through the heart of GMS – from looking after our staff to supporting a variety of charity and non-profit organisations.  In 2018 we celebrated our 20th anniversary by choosing 20 charities to support throughout the year. My FD tells me we ended up donating to a lot more than 20 and in my time as CEO, we’ve raised over £250K in charitable donations. This calculation is timely given that some years ago we set up an appeal for one of my best friends’ daughter, who suffered with quadriplegic cerebral palsy, caused by complications at birth. Unfortunately, she passed away very recently and we are about to give £5,000 to her family, raised through our appeal.

Today, we continue to support a variety of charities, individuals and organisations through time, funding and sponsorship. Charities like Kaleidoscope Plus Group, Ride High, Smile for Joel, Midlands Air Ambulance, Centre Point, Zoe’s Place and Guide Dogs. I think it’s important that some of our success is used to help worthy causes.

7. What would you say to anyone who’s struggling to find their feet right now, given that your success has been built largely on grit and determination?

Well, I’ll say this – what initially hurts you, can give you the tools, resilience and new outlook to achieve something outstanding later. Sometimes a negative propels you to a positive. Take nothing for granted – things can be taken away from you in an instant. So, get all your ducks in a row, live for today and invest in the future.

My life in 1995 was a far cry from the one I enjoy today. Back then, I was living the dream in Devon playing professional football for Torquay United FC when one day everything was taken away. I sustained a back injury, which brought my promising career to an abrupt end. I’ll never forget breaking down on the beach in Torquay when I realised that my footballing career was over. It was on a beach that I first truly understood that things can be taken away from you through no fault of your own, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. But, I use that as motivation for both myself and my team on a daily basis.

8. What are your proudest achievements?

There are so many. I am incredibly proud of our team and their successes. I am proud of the company’s successes – our ream of awards, our client list, which includes global brands like Jaguar Land Rover, CEMEX UK, AF Blakemore & Son, Kerry Foods, Neovia, Triumph Motorcycles, Mercedes AMG, Aston Martin, Grant Thornton, Avison Young, PWC to name but a few.

On a personal note I feel so lucky to have been supported throughout this journey by my wife, Emma, who has always encouraged me to focus on GMS as well as being a sounding board for key decisions. I am unbelievably proud of the people our children are turning out to be too and this is testament to Emma and the way she has focussed on their upbringing.

9. What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I’m always working, I never switch off. It drives my family crazy; I bump into people I know everywhere we go – on trains, in restaurants, walking down a high street! And I can’t resist using every opportunity to seek opportunities for GMS and the other business I am associated to, but importantly how I can help those people I meet! This is something they have not missed these last few months!

10. Finally, a simple, but notoriously difficult question to answer – where are you going?

Ultimately, I am striving to leave a legacy for my children and their children. That will make me a very happy man.

Author: Rebecca Underwood, Yogurt Top Marketing