Monday Interview: Lyle McCalmont chief executive of Leighton

Tech business chief executive discusses his swift rise to the top - and the company's ongoing plans for global growth

Chief executive of Leighton, Lyle McCalmont
Chief executive of Leighton, Lyle McCalmont

Working his way up from the bottom rungs of tech business Leighton in just eight years - and the at tender age of 34 - Lyle McCalmont has secured the chief executive spot at the most exciting and dynamic time in the company’s history. ROBERT GIBSON reports.

The North East’s tech scene boasts its fair share of meteoric rises to the top, but it’s unlikely many CVs read like Lyle McCalmont’s.

Joining Leighton just eight years ago as a developer, he soon he found himself in a team leader role, moving from there to client services manager then head of operations.

Now, aged just 34, he is chief executive of the technology company, which is headquartered between Durham and Sunderland.

“It has felt overwhelming at times,” he admitted. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself, but I wouldn’t be where I am if I wasn’t doing something right.”

Indeed, Lyle is at the helm at arguably the most exciting time in the company’s 20 year history.

Since 2011, revenues have been rising year-on-year by 20-25% while staff headcount has soared.

Now Leighton, which has already established a small London office, is targeting turnover of £10m within the next few years while dramatically expanding the reach of it operations.

“We want to grow our presence elsewhere,” Lyle said. “We can see ourselves working across the globe and I think that that will be the big push for the next year.

“We also want to bring in some bigger clients and continue working with large blue-chip companies.”

Certainly, a number of moves are afoot that should pave the way for this kind of growth.

For a start, the company is shifting away from a restrictive digital agency model to a become a full service provider, offering clients both convenience and consistency when it comes to fulfilling their broader tech needs.

“Some clients will use lots of different contractors, but we would tell them that we can do it all in-house,” Lyle said.

“It’s not that much more expensive but brings lots of benefits and we are seeing clients move towards that.

“One said: ‘We’re not going to do this anymore - we’re going to move to the Leighton Model’. We’ve always had the view that we can add value, making sure the client benefits, and some of our relationships are very long-term - for example, BA has worked with us for about 14 years, Tourism Australia for about 10 and Home Group for three.”

It helps that Leighton - part of the Leighton Group, which currently consists of five businesses - isn’t resting on its laurels but is embracing innovation.

A major part of that will involve Leighton Labs, a venture driven forward by Lyle to rigorously examine the marketplace when it comes to cutting-edge technologies - everything from big data to so-called ‘wearables’ like the new Apple Watch.

And while the company’s reputation has meant it’s never before had to push for business, Lyle saw the need for a pro-active approach, pitching to the board for investment in both a commercial team and a new business team.

“We needed to go out and sell and that’s what we’re doing now,” he said.

“There’s no reason why we can not hit £10m in revenues within the next three or four years. The business is solid. It runs well, it’s strong in financial terms and it’s strong in operational terms. We have built the foundation.”

Lyle’s own foundations in all things digital stretch back to childhood, when possessed with a Spectrum computer and encouraged by his father, he made early forays into programming.

“I love digital and always have done,” he said.

“I’m amazed by it still - I’m amazed at how much money it can save and the manpower that can be reduced.”

Born in Troon, Scotland, his family ran a golf club before relocating to the Teesside when his father got a job at ICI.

He recalls that, as a schoolboy, he wasn’t particularly academic, but loved the social side of things, being “a bit of a clown” and a “joker”.

Despite such tendencies, however, he put the work in, went on to college and eventually to university, where he studied business computing.

In the midst of his course, he secured work with the industrial services company Hertel and ended up moving to Dublin for a while to help with creation of a new pharmaceutical plant.

Although initially his role involved administration and computing on-site, “something clicked” and he soon found himself heavily involved in the business, his skills not going unnoticed.

The firm had high hopes for him, wanting him to become a manager and, as he completed his degree, he continued to work one day a week for it, before joining the IT department full-time upon graduating.

It was well-paid work, with a strong prospect of progress, but even then Lyle knew that his heart lay in the digital sector.

Hence, he quit and moved back home to take a job installing computers for ‘looked after’ youngsters - those in foster care or who had been adopted.

“I did that for a year, but was hungry for a career,” he said. “I knew somebody who worked at Leighton, applied through them and loved it from the start.”

At the time, Leighton was a small company, with just over 10 employees, but its background held a certain prestige. The Leighton Group, established by North East entrepreneur Paul Callaghan in 1992, has a reputation for setting up and building solid businesses before selling them on.

It had also already established some incredibly high profile clients - even if work volumes weren’t what they are today.

Things really began to take off after Leighton branched out in its work with BA into designing the user interface employees use internally.

“It was like an overnight boom,” Lyle recalled. “There was a need for Java developers and we were moving into areas we’d never really been involved with before.”

Leighton then went on to increase its work with the likes of business software giant, Sage, while taking on new contracts with everyone from Home Group to Sunderland Football Club.

“I think it started to gather pace as more prestigious clients came in,” Lyle said.

“The skillset started to improve and now we don’t like to classify ourselves as an agency as that pigeonholes us.”

While Leighton may have morphed into something broader, however, its values have remained stable.

“It’s about quality,” Lyle said. “We see ourselves as a premium technology business. Like Rolls Royce, we don’t want to accept anything that’s not completely perfect. That comes to the forefront because of who we work with.

“Exceptional customer service is also one of our main values and we invest in our people. We want our reputation to proceed us and for our employees to talk positively about us.”

The whole been-there-done-that thing, of course, puts Lyle at an advantage in understanding the nitty gritty of projects and what they will require of his staff.

Not one for micro-managing, or sitting in an Ivory Tower, he trusts in his employees’ abilities, letting them shine, unhindered, in their own particular skillsets.

When it comes to securing talent for the future, Lyle works with closely with local universities, nurturing young enthusiasts and ensuring what they are being taught is as cutting edge as it can be.

He’s an admirer of the likes of Charlie Hoult and Bob Paton, of Accenture, for the work they are doing through the Dynamo initiative to grow recognition of and interest in the sector - even among very young children.

“I think the North East has a great deal to offer anyone in this industry,” he said.

“We have a proud history of engineering here and that’s perhaps why we’re getting great developers - and design-wise we hold our own.”

The region, he added, also has a reputation for good-spirtedness and togetherness in its drive to grow the tech sector.

“I wish every other agency all the best,” he said. “There is plenty of work to go round and I don’t feel any animosity to any other technology business.

“I never feel that and don’t think business needs to be as cut-throat as that. The best agency will get the most work - it’s inevitable.”

Naturally, as the company propels itself towards further growth, Lyle will be a busy man.

Still, he’s not one for working round the clock, enjoying time spent with the family - he and wife Gemma have two boys, six-year-old Max and six-month-old Wilf - as well as exploring the great outdoors, from the Scottish highlands to the Lake District.

“I’m big into wildlife photography,” he said. “I like to push myself a little bit - but it’s a relaxing and provides a refreshing contrast.”

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