How a personal disaster gave Neil Male the tools to build a £13m business…
Neil Male sometimes thinks back to the day he sat on Babbacombe Beach in Devon, stared out to sea and wept. It’s a memory that the 41-year-old owner of GMS Group will never forget. It was 1995. He was 19 and he had just found out a back injury sustained while playing for Torquay United FC had brought the promise of a glittering, professional football career to an abrupt and premature end. The experience would change Neil forever. “On that beach I understood for the first time that things can be taken away from you through no fault of your own, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it,” he says.
That shattering blow still looms large in Neil’s mind but it’s no longer a millstone wrapped around his neck. Now it’s rocket fuel, which encourages him to live each day to the full, knowing that things can change in the blink of an eye – no matter how much potential and talent you may have. He seizes on the painful memory to self-motivate and he uses it to empathise with colleagues who are going through tough times themselves. Life experience is a big factor in the success of GMS Group, which Neil has marshalled into one of the most successful privately owned security businesses in the UK.
After the injury, Neil went into non-league coaching but he soon realised that a career in grassroots football was not financially viable, so he joined HSBC aged 22. In 2000, he was headhunted by a client, GMS Security. “They must have seen something in me,” muses Neil in his broad Black Country accent.
Neil joined GMS as admin manager – “I don’t do titles so it didn’t bother me” – and he proceeded to introduce new systems, processes, software and people to every department. “I learned the mechanics of a business and the security industry from the bottom up,” he explains.
The business soon began to thrive, with turnover increasing from £200,000 to £2.5m in just five years. Then, in 2005 at the age of 27, the opportunity arose for Neil to become a part owner. He jumped at the chance despite the potential risk. “In September, a year after getting married and having our baby boy Jack, my wife Emma and I remortgaged our house to buy into the business.” They signed a £250,000 personal security loan and the investment gave Neil a 33% share. Five years later, Neil became two-thirds owner after buying out one of the other owners. And five years after that, he and Emma became full owners. The business now turns over £13m. Their plan is to hit £25m by 2020.
A big part of GMS Groups success is down to Neil’s people management philosophy, innovative nature and technological vision. “Our industry is all about people,” he says. “All 600 GMS employees are ambassadors for the brand, our guards whom work at 150+ locations across the UK. To become an effective ambassador it’s crucial to understand the GMS culture, vision and values”.
Communicating those well to everyone is key, especially when so many of our staff spend so much time working remotely from head office. We all have to stay in touch with one another so I constantly fight against becoming a remote figure shut away in head office. It’s an easy trap for the boss to fall into.”
Neil’s obvious ability to get the right messages through to his team – and therefore ensure they become perfect ambassadors themselves – stems in large part from his highly developed sense of empathy. “I’m passionate about trying to help people,” he says. “I’ll never forget crying on the beach in Torquay. But what I felt then is just the same as, say, somebody who’s struggling after being made redundant or coming out of the armed forces looking for a new career. I’m big on giving people opportunities.” His words are backed up by GMS Groups charitable donations. In 2018, the company’s 20th anniversary year, instead of holding a function, GMS have selected 20 charities to assist financially, from St. Georges Hub, a Wolverhampton homeless shelter to sponsoring a puppy for Guide Dogs UK.
Neil’s practical, down-to-earth approach is another big reason behind his success. “Emma and I are both Yam Yams [slang for Black Country folk],” he says. “We deal with things from the hip and go on gut feelings. When we decided to remortgage and risk our home to invest in the business, we thought: ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ We’d have to go and live with mum and dad, be declared bankrupt and start again. But you know what? When I looked at Jack, my son, who at the time was 12 months old, I knew what I had to do. I had a young child for whom I was responsible for, so failure wasn’t an option.”
The path Neil has trodden since that low moment at a young vulnerable age has been triumphant. The irony is that much of his success is a result of that pain. That’s a powerful message for anyone going through a tough time, and it’s a message that Neil loves to highlight: 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. As Neil says: “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.”