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A man for all kinds of learning

Neil Munro talks to the new evangelist in charge of Learndirect Scotland

If Billy Allan was not now chairing Learndirect Scotland, the job would probably have been invented for him.

The 44-year-old, who has just taken up the reins at the lifelong learning vehicle, is an almost carbon copy model of the messages he is trying to get across.

An apprentice electrical engineer who left school at the age of 16, Mr Allan joined E J Stiell, a facilities management and business services group, and rose to the top. Like Victor Kiam, he loved the business - and its 2,500 employees - so much, he bought it. Eventually, he sold it to Alfred McAlpine in 2002 for pound;85 million.

It is a Scottish business success story which, typically, is little known.

But it is also a learning success story. Mr Allan, with backing from his first employer, "just kept on learning", as he put it. After his apprenticeship, he acquired an HND, followed it with an honours degree, took an Institute of Directors course and became a qualified accountant.

He also kept on working as managing director of Alfred McAlpine Business Services until the last day in March. By a happy coincidence, as Learndirect Scotland is beginning to step up its evangelical learning message to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), he has embarked on a consultancy advising and mentoring small businesses. He has four companies on his books at the moment.

Mr Allan is at pains to stress that Learndirect Scotland will not be deserting its other customers - detached and disaffected learners.

He believes it has scored major successes here, stepping in to correct what he calls "market failure" in raising awareness of learning opportunities and stimulating demand for them - its database has details of 70,000 courses.

His business acumen was particularly impressed by the "Give it a Go" event in Glasgow's Easterhouse in August 2003 - 1,500 people attended this learning event and 740 follow-up letters were then sent out referring people to their local learning centre (there are now over 400 LDS centres).

"If Tesco or Vodaphone had that rate of conversion, they would be more than happy," he says.

Learndirect Scotland will now apply the lessons it has learnt to SMEs - a much harder nut to crack, since they are less likely to be seduced by ad campaigns and slick promotions.

What they will be seduced by, as Mr Allan knows from his business experiences, will be practical case studies of what works - and staff on the ground to help them with what does not work. A breakfast meeting Learndirect Scotland held recently for SMEs made that abundantly clear.

"I know why employers don't train," he says. "I have competed with companies who don't train. In one way, I was pleased; in another, I was sad. Training staff is not just the right thing to do: it's the only thing to do. It's fundamental to the success of the Scottish economy."

There have always been two main obstacles to getting SMEs enthused about training their staff - or employee development, as Mr Allan prefers to call it. One is employers' fears that, once trained, staff will move on to a job with their competitors. The other is that employers may feel they do not have the time to do it.

Mr Allan believes firmly that these objections are more apparent than real.

"We can't demonstrate a direct correlation between staff training and business success," he says. "It is impossible to show what the return is, but there is no doubt there is a correlation and the link is more than just coincidental. Those who invest in employee development are the most successful. It's a fact.

"I'm a product of an organisation which spent twice the national average of our competitors on training our staff."

The results, he says, speak for themselves - pound;7 million in sales when he bought the company in 1995 grew to pound;120 million in 2002 when he sold it.

As for trained staff moving on, McAlpine's turnover was less than 2 per cent a year. "The key is to treat staff with respect and create a culture that makes them want to stay - those that you want to stay."

Further education colleges have often questioned the need for an organisation like Learndirect Scotland, maintaining that they could do the job just as well. Mr Allan in turn could make the point that colleges and universities might have been doing the job of promoting just what Learndirect Scotland is doing.

But he does not - beyond pointing out that half a million adults in Scotland are illiterate.

Mr Allan is intent on an evangelical approach. "We've got to convince them that God exists," he says. "We are a sales organisation trying to stimulate demand. The challenge is trying to sell something to someone who doesn't know they need it."

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