COMPANY director Colin McNeill is a man of iron!
The 42-year-old managing director of Birkby-based creative design agency Planet Group is a dedicated competitor in the Iron Man Triathlon – a competition, which tests the strength and staying power of athletes by combining swimming, cycling and running in one gruelling event.
“I train six days a week,” says Colin. “I split the training up between Huddersfield and Leeds. Before work, I swim for an hour at Leeds Aquatic Centre. That means getting up at about 6am. I also train after work and I try to fit in some running at lunchtimes. When I’ve a race coming up I will train 20 hours a week.”
Looking relaxed in the boardroom at Planet’s Bay Hall offices, it’s difficult to believe that Colin is building up to his next Iron Man Triathlon, which takes place in May in Lanzarote. The competition is made up of a 3.8km swim followed by a 180km bike ride and then a 42km run – all to be completed in under 17 hours.
“It all started out about six years ago when my business partner Eddie Rayner and I decided we wanted to get fit,” Colin says. “We decided to enter a sprint triathlon, so we had to train for that. The whole event took about an hour, but I started doing more and more training covering longer distances. I was bitten by the bug.”
Colin has been competing seriously since 2006 and has taken part in Iron Man triathlons in Germany, Florida and Australia. The event in Lanzarote will be Colin’s fourth. He plans to spend a week there acclimatising before the event – and stay on for a well-earned holiday afterwards.
Colin is also taking the opportunity to drum up sponsorship to raise money for Kirkwood Hospice at Dalton.
He draws comparisons between the dedication needed for competitive sport and the commitment required to run a business. “It is all about being consistent and doing the little things well,” says Colin. “That is what gets results.”
Colin grew up in Huddersfield and attended King James’ School at Almondbury before taking an arts foundation course at Huddersfield Technical College and furthering his studies at Batley College of Art.
“I went to work for an advertising agency in London for a while,” he says. “But I came back to Huddersfield because I was missing the town. People in the creative industries think London is where it’s all at. I grew up in Kirkheaton and I was used to seeing fields everywhere. Instead, I was in a concrete city where you had to go to Hyde Park to see some green.”
Colin joined forces with Eddie to set up Planet Group in 1997 – leaving the relative safety of employment to go it alone by combining Colin’s design skills and Eddie’s expertise in magazine publishing.
“We took the plunge because we believed we could run a business better ourselves,” says Colin. “At that time, we weren’t in a recession and we had lots of ideas. A lot of creative businesses came out of Batley Art College. People would buy an AppleMac and set up in a bedroom as freelancers.”
Almost 14 years on and Planet Group is well established at Birkby – and in Dubai, where Eddie is based alongside Colin’s brother Paul, who is office manager there.
“We set up the Dubai office about six years ago,” says Colin. “Eddie visited Dubai during his honeymoon and saw how much construction was going on. Part of our business is publishing trade magazines for the construction industry, so it was a good business move.
“When the recession meant construction work in Dubai slowed down, we were able to switch to design work.”
Says Colin: “I did have the option of going to Dubai and running that side of the business, but I have people I trust implicitly out there in Eddie and Paul. We have ‘Middle East hours’ at the Birkby office with one designer starting at 6am to correlate with business hours in Dubai. We can also handle design work here if necessary, create a file and email it over, so that our people on the ground can present work to their clients.”
Planet has 28 staff based in Huddersfield and 10 at the Dubai office. It has clients in all sectors of industry, but specialises particularly in construction, sport and leisure, food and drink and pharmaceuticals. Customers have ranged from British Airways and Virgin Trains to Vivimed Labs at Leeds Road and Kirklees Active Leisure.
“We are well-established and we have a good reputation,” says Colin. “About 95% of our business comes from word-of-mouth and referrals. As far as we are concerned, it is all about providing clients with a good return on their investment. I have turned down work where I didn’t think we could help them in the right way.
“It is not just about designing a logo or a brochure, it is about seeing the bigger picture and doing things that will bring in business for the client.
“In the case of one client, which had been established for 10 years, we revamped their whole marketing material. The following year, they had their best-ever year in business. The only thing that had changed was the marketing material. Ten years later, they are still with us.”
Colin said the recession had shown the value of firms maintaining their marketing budget. “The companies that have survived in this recession are the ones who didn’t cut their marketing spend. They have set themselves apart from the competition,” he says.
“If you cut back on marketing, people don’t know you are there. You might have saved your marketing budget, but you’ve no sales.”
Planet Group has also emerged from the recession in good health. “At the moment, we are very positive,” says Colin. “We have come through the worst of the recession. We continued to do good work for clients during the recession and that is bearing fruit in referrals which are coming back as new contracts. We have people working long hours and weekends. We have just taken on another designer because of the workload.”
Colin is always keen to generate more business.
He is an active member of a local BNI networking group, which meets once a week at The Hepworth, near Holmfirth. “It’s about meeting the same people each week and helping each other generate leads,” he says. “ I have been to networking events where all they do is exchange business cards and have a few drinks. That’s not how BNI works!”