Celebrating 30 years of innovation and three decades of success in rail
By Alan McLeish, managing director of QTS Group
I was 32 years old when I took the plunge into self-employment and founded QTS. Fast forward 30 years and we are one of the UK’s leading rail contractors, with a turnover of more than £100million, nine offices nationwide and almost 600 employees delivering first class work for clients across the UK.
Now, as QTS approaches its milestone 30th birthday, I have taken the opportunity to look back on the last three decades and share my experiences of working in rail. I know I’m biased, but it’s one of the most exciting and innovative industries in the world.
Born in Glasgow to parents who worked several jobs, I aspired to be a professional sportsman or join the armed forces but a teenage job as a seasonal gardener evoked a love for working outdoors and I soon found myself working in forestry.
Through ambition and determination, I qualified as a tree surgeon and rose to the role of Contracts Manager, making me one of the youngest people in the UK to hold the position at the time. From this, I took the risky decision to branch out on my own and, with a £300 loan from my mum, QTS, was born.
30 years later, I couldn’t be prouder to have dedicated my career to the progressive and dynamic world of rail.
Early learnings and finding a base
As a business, QTS has grown from its original roots in arbour to specialise in rail infrastructure and maintenance, having diversified its offering over the last three decades. I put much of the firm’s success down to our ambitious and determined nature, as well as our ability to pivot our offering when needed to facilitate growth.
At times, the early days of QTS meant some personal sacrifices for me but it was all worth it to witness our organic success. The creation of our headquarters in 2000, at Rench Farm in South Lanarkshire was a turning point for the business as we transitioned from being a sole trader to a limited company with more than 40 employees.
This move facilitated our evolution into rail infrastructure and provided employees with a much-needed base and a strong direction; two things that I’ve found are crucial to building teams that can flourish.
Investing solely in rail
When our HQ opened, QTS Group was split into separate divisions, comprising QTS Construction Ltd, QTS Civil Engineering Ltd and QTS Rail Ltd. However, construction and civil engineering were failing to be profitable, while the rail subsidiary of the business went from strength to strength.
Our rail offering demonstrated resilience and strong growth and I made the difficult decision in 2011 to cease trading of QTS Construction and QTS Civil Engineering. Owning your own business and having so many people depend on you for their livelihoods always make these decisions incredibly tough, however, the unrivalled success of QTS Rail over the next decade proved it was a wise one and another example of how essential agility is to a company.
People were at the heart of the three businesses and every employee from the divisions seizing operations was offered the chance to move to the rail subsidiary. Much of the staff transferred, many of whom are still with QTS today and have grown alongside the company. After streamlining the business to focus on what we did best, we have grown exponentially.
In 2018, after 26 years at the helm, I decided to sell the company to Renew Holdings. For me, it was the right time to seize the opportunity to push QTS into new territory, with an aligned team dedicated to building on the firm’s legacy as a leader in rail innovation. Since then, QTS acquired Rail Electrification Ltd, in June 2021, adding electrification to our already impressive portfolio.
Figureheads of professional development and social value
For me, the importance of investing in staff cannot be overestimated and QTS has long been an advocate for training and developing workforces to build, attract, and retain the best talent. That’s why we launched QTS Training Ltd, an NSAR gold-rated provider of railway safety critical and on-track plant training in 2009, to ensure the highest quality of training and development could be provided to our workforce.
I believe the best way to grow the rail industry is to invest in young talent and offer the key skills needed to tackle the ongoing talent shortage. The rail industry hasn’t always been considered an exciting and viable career choice for young people, but we’re committed to changing the narrative to create a youthful workforce fit for the future.
We also seek out less traditional routes in finding skilled labour. For example, in 2021, QTS Group signed up for the Government’s Kickstart Programme, a scheme that provides funding to enable businesses to create new jobs for 16 to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit, who are at risk of long-term unemployment. Working with East Ayrshire Council, we have also launched the UK’s first Rail Skills Academy, with the first 10 young people graduating in August 2022. Five of them have come to join the QTS family and the rest have gone on to seek other routes into rail.
Since I founded QTS, social value has been part of our company DNA and we aim to deliver genuine support to the communities we operate in. From sponsoring youth athletes to being involved with the Youth Philanthropy Initiative in Scotland, some of our success can be contributed to our social responsibility work outside of the day job. We also work within local schools offering support and guidance and have a proud involvement with an array of local and national organisations including Women in Rail, Darvel FC and Ayr Rugby Club.
Plant innovation is one of my personal passions within the industry. I am so proud of the development of our fleet over the last 30 years. QTS brought the world’s first Mega Chipper to the railway, followed a few years ago by the Mega Chipper V2, an improvement on this technology. We are still the only company who has a rail mounted Forwarder that we utilise on vegetation sites. It’s an absolute joy to be able to watch some of this kit that we have created and developed get on track.
Predictions for the sector
After three decades, one of my biggest learnings has been that investing in your people is key. At QTS, we promote from within and give our staff the opportunity to move forward with additional training and development. All our board have worked their way up internally within the business and seeing that there is real progression available to those who work hard and do well, helps to motivate, retain and also attract great staff. From this, we are helping to ensure that our employees feel proud to work at QTS and that they are confident in their roles, which allows them to deliver pioneering rail projects as a result.
Our commitment to innovation is also something that will help our business, and the industry, moving forward, something that we demonstrated with our inaugural ‘Future of Rail’ event, hosted at our HQ in summer 2022.
QTS has always been at the forefront of plant machinery and creating innovative ways to generate efficiencies and improve safety and I look forward to seeing how far the industry goes over the next 30 years.
With further investment in people and innovation across the sector, I truly believe that the rail industry will continue to create more jobs and promote positive socioeconomic change throughout the UK.