Former paratrooper Dr Maitland Hyslop is boosting Microdat’s fortunes. He met Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright.
HE claims to have chased Russian troops across icy wastes and foiled kidnappers by leaping from a speeding car.
Dr Maitland Hyslop’s CV seems to have been torn from the pages of an Ian Fleming novel.
In his latest role, he aims to bring jobs and investment to Yorkshire on the back of the boom in micro-brewing.
As chief executive of Microdat, the brewing equipment manufacturing company, he hopes to create a stir in a fiercely competitive market. Not that he’s one to shirk a challenge. Just ask any Cold War Russian troopers who tried to chance their arm. During the 1970s, he was a special forces paratrooper, patrolling an area where few dared to tread.
“There are all sorts of vignettes around this,” he recalled. “One of them is memories of chasing Russians across Norwegian snow fields. People think the Cold War was cold but, occasionally, it was quite hot. In the winter, we all used to go on exercise to Norway and the Russians used to bury themselves in the snow so that they could listen to what we were doing.
“We would go and try and find them, and then, when we’d found them, they’d have to run away. It was a game of hounds and hares. The biggest lesson I learned from my military career was the importance of never giving up.”
During his military career Mr Hyslop was a logistics expert, with combat and anti-terrorism experience.
This tenacity came in handy when he was kidnapped, years later, during the business trip from hell. He had been sent to Lagos in Nigeria on a tough assignment.
He was asked to move businesses from “what were basically local chiefs to the major multi-nationals such as Cadburys, Trebor and Coca Cola”.
He recalled: “Some of the locals didn’t particularly like what I was doing, so they decided to get rid of me. The first two kidnap attempts failed. The third attempt worked. I was kidnapped for two days before I escaped. My army experience was useful.”
Remarkably, he managed to escape from a moving car in a manoeuvre James Bond would have been proud of.
“They had a machine gun and a torch on me,” he said. “But it was my car and I knew where the central locking switch was. They’d untied my hands to put me in the car and I was able to flick the central locking switch and fall out of the car, while it was turning, and I leapt over the side of the motorway. I hadn’t realised there was 40ft drop into a river, which I then had to swim and get out on the other side.
“I was also kidnapped in Russia when I went to solve a problem with an oil deal. When I got to the bottom of the oil deal, some of the locals didn’t like the result so they decided to take me away for a while. I got away by giving my minders the slip. I managed to find the KGB who helped me return to the UK. It’s a funny old world sometimes, you go from chasing Russians to being helped by them.”
In the years since, he’s led a number of technology and engineering businesses, chaired the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Local Enterprise Partnership, trained global kayak champions and worked as an African consultant with Tetra Pak, the food packaging and processing company.
So what brought him to Microdat? When he was hired as CEO in April last year, the company had entered a challenging time. In 2011, Microdat was given a £500,000 equity linked investment from Finance Yorkshire.
At the time, the Leeds-based company, which makes cask and keg handling systems for large brewers and real ale specialists such as Timothy Taylor, said the investment would help it meet demand. Last year, Microdat’s backers realised they needed somebody with Mr Hyslop’s broad range of skills to help the business step up a gear.
The company currently employs 75 staff and has an estimated turnover of £14m.
Mr Hyslop said: “Finance Yorkshire, who were the major backers of the company, were looking to add to the team.”
He had worked with the company’s chairman, Alastair Waite, before. They had grown three businesses in the technology sector, so Mr Hyslop knew they were a strong team.
“The challenge it was facing was a lack of overall growth,” said Mr Hyslop. “It had been a very linear business, one project had followed the other. We’re now building partnerships with other businesses that will enable us to give a more complete offering than we did in the past, and running projects in series. So instead of just selling one bit of equipment, we’re looking to sell a whole package. It is a big challenge to grow a manufacturing business these days – but we are getting there and we are several times bigger this year than last, and profitable.
“Now, we can build a whole brewery from start to finish, from the malt going in one end to the beer coming out of the other.”
Microdat’s growth is partly being driven by our new-found love of real ale.
Mr Hyslop said: “Real ale has taken off, to such an extent that the big breweries have been re-investing in cask ales rather than the traditional kegged lagers and beers. This renaissance in real ale is a counterpoint to the decline in pubs.”
The economic crisis has encouraged many former public sector workers to become entrepreneurs.
He said: “In London, one of the big drivers of the growth in breweries is civil service redundancy. One hundred and twenty breweries in London have been created by civil servants who have been made redundant. Up here, in Yorkshire and Lancashire, growth is driven by a desire to do something interesting in a business for which there is a clear local market. There are 20 people we’re advising at the moment who have come out of a long-term career and want to make a change.
“It’s going to be difficult to sustain this growth because we already have more breweries per capita than any other country in the world. There’s going to be a consolidation at some stage. It’s often an export-led business.”
He’s keen to stress the importance of teamwork, and Microdat’s community roots.
“The ownership of Microdat is split between the Midgley family, with the founder Steve Midgley still very much involved, Finance Yorkshire, Alastair Waite, myself and a few smaller investors. We’d expect to help Finance Yorkshire exit in two or three years’ time. Private equity is probably a route to go down at some stage.
“Our immediate plans are to try to get Microdat up to £50m turnover, so we expect to be employing 200 to 300 people by that stage. We want to keep putting something back into the local economy.”
The never-say-die attitude he picked up on the icy wastes should help to create sustainable growth at Microdat.