She’s a force to be reckoned with, on a mission to regenerate her childhood home of Kilmarnock and other small towns globally. Marie Macklin tells what made her the determined operator she is today – from growing up in a post-industrial town to her brush with death caused by endometriosis.
Marie Macklin looks out from the heights of the Radisson Red Sky Bar over the darkening landscape of Finnieston where the Hydro glows in the wintry late Glasgow afternoon twilight. She recalls how she bought her first flat just up the road, here, in the 1990s, at a time when this area was still “Just nothing. You had the Wimpey development down the bottom and that was it. This was just wasteland.”
How areas can be regenerated is of interest to this construction entrepreneur, and at the heart of the urban renewal concept and company, HALO, of which she is director. But she’s more interested in the regeneration of towns, like the Kilmarnock she grew up in, than big city areas like this.
She gestures to the buildings below. “I look at urban regeneration like this and think it’s amazing. I look at the East End [of Glasgow] and it’s amazing, but in Kilmarnock I’m actually creating a new economy. I’m not just building new buildings. I’m partnering with people like Scottish Power and saying, ‘Look, I’m going to create an innovation and enterprise hub and I’m going to create 1500 jobs. I need you to come here and work with us and help our young people through education courses and getting jobs with you. I want this in Kilmarnock. You would never usually come here. But this is why you need to come.’”
For Macklin regeneration is all about “heart and love”. It’s a passion that has its roots in her childhood, growing up in post-industrial Kilmarnock at a time when, all around her, factories were closing. That is where her first HALO project will be built.
“My quest,” she says, “is to get the post-industrial revolution into my hometown and other towns, rather than cities which are where it normally goes.”
Macklin, who can boast a whole string of business awards and a CBE, has a bold and brassy personal style. With her blonde hair, bronzed-skin and leather-jacketed bling, she looks as if she could easily occupy one of the edgier seats on Dragon’s Den.
But her talk is not of profit or turnover, but of what it takes to regenerate the economy of a community and make it “sing”.
It’s not of dragons, but of angels. She believes, she says, in angels, and that’s not an “airy fairy” notion she says, but a grounded one, rooted in her own sense that she got a “second chance” at life when she survived, at 32 years old, a life-changing illness.
Collision is a word Marie Macklin uses frequently. It’s how she describes that brush with that illness. It’s also the term she uses for what happened when, in 2009, she was at the head of a community of 20,000 people who marched in Kilmarnock to protest at the closure by international drinks giant Diageo of the Johnnie Walker bottling plant, with a loss of 700 jobs. “A whole community colliding with a PLC,” she recalls, “but then coming together to try to make change”.
She cites lyrics by Kilmarnock rock band Biffy Clyro: “’When we collide we come together, if we don’t we’ll always be apart.’”
“The lyrics in that song,” she says, “pertain to the collisions that I’ve had in my life.”
Nine years on, that 2009 march now looks like it was just the start of the journey towards HALO, a project she hopes will prove itself at Kilmarnock then go on to transform other towns. On the site of the old Johnnie Walker factory, there will, she says, be an enterprise and innovation hub which sounds almost futuristic, providing commercial space and opportunities for cyber and digital-training, an urban park including a wave surf pool, a cafe, a virtual reality arcade and studio housing.
Its ambition is for the site to be at, “the forefront of the fourth industrial revolution”. It is also, says Macklin, one of five projects worldwide that Iberdrola, the parent company of Scottish Power, have picked as test sites for such sustainable technology.
That it is has been chosen for this, she observes, is remarkable, because “PLCs aren’t known for coming to small towns”.
What happened with Diageo might be one of her more famous “collisions”, but it’s not the one she describes as her biggest. That happened back in 1998, when as a 32-year-old with a promising career in the financial services in London, she was thrown off course by a serious health threat.
Back then she was juggling a job at RBS with helping out at her dad’s construction business, KLIN, at the weekends. A hectic weekly routine saw her taking the red-eye down to London on a Monday morning, working to hit targets at RBS all week, then heading back on a Friday to spend the weekend selling houses.
Macklin wasn’t treated immediately and was left, she recalls, in a hallway for four hours. When her parents arrived, they found her in extreme pain. “I remember saying to my dad, ‘I’m dying.’ He said, ‘No, you’re not.”
She asked her father to take her to a different hospital. “I had no idea what it was, but I was in such severe pain, I was crying. What they said then was that they thought it was appendicitis. But they then sent for a doctor to come over from the maternity hospital that they were affiliated to and it was clear they realised it was a gynaecological problem. I got rushed into theatre.”
What Macklin had, it turned out, was a form of endometriosis called chocolate ovarian cysts. Back then, public awareness of this, as of many so-called women’s problems was scant, though it is now improving. The cysts were bursting inside her, and had been growing there, undiagnosed for years, causing her pain and now internal bleeding. But while she was in the operating theatre she had no idea of this.
It’s hard to imagine what the shock of this must have been. For many months following that surgery, Macklin says, she struggled. When she first came to, she was given self-administering morphine to ease her pain, which, she says, she “overdosed on”.
“I didn’t go out the house for months. I was in such pain it was horrendous.” She lost all her confidence and thought she would never work again.
“I was off work for about six months. RBS directors used to come and see me and look at me in full pain. I got to the stage where I was saying, ‘I’ll never be able to come back to work.’ I thought I’d never work again. But my parents and then-husband got me through.”
What also kept her going was her bulldogs, the two dogs she refers to as her “family”, which she says are now no longer with her. “My bulldogs unfortunately since died,” she says. “The last one, Maggie May, died in 2014. I haven’t replaced them. They were my kids. I can’t go back there the now. I can’t face it. I hate anything dying.”
Her quest following that illness has been to put something into the community. That collision, she believes, changed her. “My turning point was when I took ill in 1997. Would I have come back from the city of London and done what I’ve done here if it hadn’t happened? Working in finance in London was hard. I was a young girl and I wanted to work there and you had to fight your corner and it was ruthless. That makes you hard. I always think what would have happened if that turning point hadn’t happened?
Gradually, as she recovered her confidence, Macklin began to work again at the family company, of which she later became financial director. When her father took ill in 2004, she bought the company and became director. She recalls that even back then Klin was doing things differently. The places they chose to develop were not easy high-margin greenfield sites. “We were working in places that others weren’t because they didn’t consider the margin high enough and they didn’t want to sell a £40,000 flat to Mrs Docherty on Tollcross Road. They wanted to be in higher value and greenbelt. We don’t do greenbelt. We only do urban and listed buildings.”
But with HALO, she has taken the ethos further. This project was developed with the community, its plans designed through consultation, rather than bringing local views in as an afterthought, and with the chief purpose of generating urban renewal. The story of its creation is rooted in that 2009 protest against Diageo, and Macklin’s desire to turn the closure into something that would help her community.
It was Macklin that struck a deal with Diageo for the site for a pound. “I said,” she recalls, ‘give it to me for a pound and I’ll create a £65 million project and we will put community value back in.’”
Diageo took that deal and, for that £1, the local community ended up with an eight-acre site, on which Ayrshire College was built with Scottish Government funding. But there was still a 20-acre adjacent site that was unused. Macklin then came up with the HALO proposal, which drew in substantial funding, to the tune of many millions, from many sources, including Diageo.
Why aren’t more projects like HALO happening on these unused sites in towns and cities? “The reason a lot of these sites never get developed is market failure. The build costs are too great. You can’t do it. The only way you can do it is to come up with innovative funding mechanisms. Why do developers not do it? Because it’s too hard work and not enough margin in it. It’s too easy to go into a city and build or go out to a greenbelt and build.”
Macklin was brought up in the same postcode as HALO will occupy. Her father, John Dick, was a bricklayer, who worked his way up into white collar roles in construction companies, before setting up his own company in 1988. As a youngster, even from five years old, she recalls, she was always keen to be taken out with her father to his work. “I used to go in the van with dad.”
The Kilmarnock she grew up in, she says, had been at the forefront of the industrial revolution. “Then everything shut down and I watched that in the 1970s and 1980s. I was very passionate about history. All my uncles worked in local factories – Massey Ferguson [which closed in 1978], Stoddard carpets, Johnnie Walker’s. As a kid growing up, it was hard to watch.”
She also recalls that when, as a teenager, she took the train up and down to college in Glasgow, she would see “factories shutting, window broken.”
What she saw going on in Kilmarnock is also something she describes as one of her early collision points. Family holidays in wealthy Aberdeen showed her the contrast. “When I was a child we had these holidays at a static caravan at Hazelhead Park. It was the 1970s and Aberdeen was this affluent place where there were Texans with their cowboy hats and oil, and we would come back to a community where everything was closing. That was my first recollection of acknowledging what an economy is.”
But, she says, it was not what she classes as her very first “collision”. That happened when, as a young girl, she was bullied, “horrendously”, between ages five and eight, by a boy at her school. “Then something finally cracked one day. My mum was waiting outside the school gates and I had had enough. I got my school bag and I swung it and swung it around my head and hit him with it, and he ran away crying and I never got bothered again.”
She marvels at the fact that the quiet, bullied kid she describes would become who she is today, a woman who won’t take no for an answer.
Macklin is also dyslexic, though that wasn’t diagnosed while she was at school. “I was slow at school. I was kept back a couple of years. And it wasn’t until many years later I realised I was dyslexic. It’s never kept me back. I wasn’t the most articulate at school, but I was always very hard-working and entrepreneurial.”
She doesn’t read books, she says. “Lyrics are my release and music got me through some dark days. Especially after that illness.” She frequently quotes lyrics. When she has a bad day, she puts on a good song to lift her. She’s listening, she says, to Queen at the moment, The Show Must Go On.
“For me,” she says, “that’s a song about how the show must go on in an industrial town. Because it goes, ‘Empty spaces, what are we living for? Abandoned places…’”
Even the name HALO has a connection with a song. “I love angels,” she says. “Because I was given that second chance when I survived that illness. I also love Beyonce and I loved her song, Halo. So it actually fitted in quite well. We now talk about the HALO effect and lighting up communities and taking it worldwide, because if we get this model right it will be a franchise model.”
In the predominantly male construction industry, she is a rare female leader. “It’s a hard job,” she says, “a hard place for women in particular.” She mentors, she says, some women, but her own mentors have been mainly male. Among them is her father. “Some of the men I worked for at RBS were great mentors. Hard, hard men. If something was not acceptable they threw it back at you. It made me harder. You had to be that type of person to survive where I worked in London. But I wouldn’t change anything. I’ve got this masculine type side and a very feminine side and a girly side. I wear my heart on my sleeve to a certain extent. And I am me.”
It’s a breath-taking formula. Heart on her sleeve, and kind, but also a tough as Shellac nails.
You can find Marie’s article on The Herald website here.