My Journey at GMS; CEO Neil Male celebrates 20 years with the business
“I had big dreams when I started out at GMS as admin manager and I made those dreams a reality by turning them into goals and actionable strategies. I truly believe that our success to date is largely down to our collective passion and perseverance.
GMS Group’s story began with 19-year-old me sat on a beach in Torquay – it was the day I realised that my career as a professional footballer was over. I sustained a back injury, which meant I could no longer play. My dreams, hopes and aspirations were in pieces…and so was I. In that moment though, I learned a valuable lesson, that things can be taken away from you through no fault of your own, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. As painful as that lesson was to learn – it’s now what drives me.
After a few years of non-league coaching, I joined HSBC and one of my customers was GMS Security. It wasn’t long before its owners headhunted me to go and work for them and despite advice to stay in the corporate world, I preferred the challenge of working for a small, independently owned company where I could make my mark. At the time, GMS was turning over £200K in their second year of trading.
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 GMS’s owners seemed to like my way of getting things done. Within five years, our turnover had grown to £2.5M 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.
In 2005, at the age of 27, the opportunity came up for me to become part owner but it didn’t come without risks. My wife and I had to re-mortgage the house soon after our son, Jack, was born in order to acquire a 33% stake in the business. We literally put everything on red because we knew that we could make GMS Group a formidable organisation…and we have!
I’m not a fan of job titles but a number of people told me it was time to start calling myself CEO. Shortly after, we won the Jaguar Cars Ltd manned guarding contract, which was a big deal for what was ‘little GMS’ at the time. I went to do the sales pitch on my own and after them being let down time and time again by the so-called ‘leaders’ in our sector, they were looking for something different. In that meeting, I held nothing back, I told them what my team could do and I gave them my word we would deliver the service they deserved, that I would personally take responsibility for their contract and in no way would I let it fail. They took a risk on Neil Male, but believed in my dogged determination. Fifteen years later I am proud to say our contract with JLR has recently been extended for a further two years. Every few years they go out to tender, but we maintain our confidence knowing we have consistently delivered what I promised them 15 years ago.
Following four additional management buy outs, raising a total of £1M over a five-year period, Emma and I became full owners of GMS Group in 2015. By then, we’d 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.
I wanted some recognition for the processes we’d worked hard to achieve and they were having a massive impact on customer service, so we worked to achieve our ISO 27001, ISO 9001, IS0 14001 and OHSAS 18001. In fact, we remain the only manned guarding company in the UK to have ISO 27001 for our Information Security systems and we have just upgraded to ISO 45001 for our Occupational Health and Safety systems.
We soon went on to win contracts such as Aston Martin Lagonda, Triumph Motorcycles, Mercedes AMG, AF Blakemore Logistics, Lineage, Kerry Foods – global brands we are still proud to be associated with and many of which have been customers for more than a decade.
In 2011, when I was 32, I wanted to recognise the hard work of some of the business’s key individuals and ensure they remained incentivised to work with me and make GMS a success, so I launched an Enterprise Management Incentive Scheme. Majority of the team members involved are still with me today.
In 2014 around the time we were turning over £10M, 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. 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.
I have continually invested in the personal development of my team. 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 14yrs 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 gives us such an edge in a people driven business because she knows the benefit to the customers of looking after our people.
I am particularly passionate about helping people, especially those in vulnerable situations or who have not had the best start in life. That’s why I give generously to charities and why in 2018 as part of celebrating GMS Group’s 20th anniversary, we chose 20 charities to support throughout the year. My FD Andrea Ryall tells me we ended up donating to a lot more than 20 and in my time as CEO, we have raised £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 over £5,000 to her family, raised through our appeal.
In the last few years, I have been recognised for my personal successes including being named as one of Grant Thornton’s Faces of a Vibrant Economy in 2018; being shortlisted by the Institute of Directors for their Award for Innovation in 2018 and winning Transformational Leader in the West Midlands Leadership Awards in 2019. GMS was also shortlisted for the West Midlands Business Masters Awards in the Large Business category, among some strong competition from St Modwen, ADI Group, and last year’s winners Aston Manor Cider. The Award ceremony has been postponed due to Covid-19 so we remain hopeful on this one!
My passion for GMS is as strong now as it was when we re-mortgaged our house; I am driven by good health, happiness and financial stability for my family and my team. But, I am fortunate enough to now be in a position where I can let my incredible team run GMS and put some of my skills and time into other organisations. I have recently been appointed board member of Kaleidoscope Plus Group, a charity who promote positive mental health and well-being as well as accepting 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 is testament to my team that I can juggle these roles.
GMS Group will turnover £15M this year but we’re already looking to the future. We have recently signed a collaboration agreement with a leader in the Facilities Management sector so we can work together to provide customers a wider range of services. Manned Guarding will always be at the heart of what we do best but the technology division launched two years ago allows us to give customers a blend of solutions which include traditional manpower and more advanced technology. We have become well-known in the automotive, food, logistics and manufacturing sectors and will continue to focus on these areas. Our next goal is to achieve £25M turnover by 2023.
I am 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 incredibly proud of the people our children are turning out to be and this is testament to Emma and the way she has focussed on their upbringing.
I personally hope to leave a legacy for my children and their children, that will make me a very happy man.”