Ian McIntosh – leadership lessons from the Red Driving School boss

Ian McIntosh, CEO of Red Driving School

Ian McIntosh put Red Driving School back on the road after its original parent firm went into administration. As he celebrates his fifth anniversary as CEO, the IoD member admits to Director that he wouldn’t mind leading another turnaround

I showed tenacity from a young age. When I was a 14-year-old Scout, I was determined that I would go to Japan to be Yorkshire’s sole representative at the 1971 World Jamboree. Somehow, I hustled sponsorship for the trip – the first time I’d ever been abroad. We camped on Mount Fuji, but ended up having to be evacuated by the Japanese army after getting struck by Typhoon Olive.

My engineering degree has proved useful in business. Although my technical skills are out of date, my ability to analyse problems comes from when I took my MSc at Cranfield University back in the early 1980s.

Working for an ‘assertive’ company during your formative years can shape your outlook. After university I spent six years in Germany working for a pet-food firm owned by Mars Inc. The culture there was Americanised and very aggressive. But it was the sort of stuff I wanted to experience as a young guy. I couldn’t speak a word of German before moving there. In Germany you can’t say: ‘I think it would be a good idea to move this machinery.’ You have to be more explicit, saying: ‘We are moving this machinery.’

Never shirk a challenge. When I joined Red, I’d spent 14 years in a corporate role, earning good money with nice bonuses. I went into the company knowing it was a turnaround situation. It wasn’t going to be easy, but that was part of the attraction. I don’t necessarily want sleepless nights, but I like jobs where you’re always thinking: how on Earth can I fix this?

Turnarounds are about cashflow and profit. They’re also about getting your business model right. The toughest time in my career was that first year and a half, when we were leaching cash everywhere. We had to stop spending money and find more creative approaches. We then redesigned the business model: Red used to be best known for training instructors, but now the driving school is the successful part of the business.

‘Cash is king’ may be a cliché, but it’s very true. Red is definitely an SME, but even at the big blue-chip firms we fretted about cashflow.

The business needs to develop constantly. There’s a new-look driving test in December, which will cover the use of satnavs. Luckily, all of our new cars have these built in.

I’m not too worried about the rise of autonomous cars. There has been lots of hype about this, but I think people will be driving themselves for many years to come.

We teach people of all ages. Learning to drive is no longer a rite of passage that you go through on your 17th birthday. Even though our target market is aged 17 to 25, many of our learners are older people who used to live in cities with good public transport systems and only now need to use a car. Also, most people who migrate here from abroad don’t have a valid licence, so they need to take lessons to pass UK tests.

Traditional marketing no longer works. If you’re thinking about learning to drive, the first thing you do is ask your friends who taught them, so the instructor’s reputation is important. The next place you look is on Google. If you search for driving lessons, you’ll find us on page one. We have worked hard to get there, not with paid advertising, but with search-engine-optimised placements, which are far more efficient.

Working in restaurants teaches you a lot about dealing with the public. My wife and I ran Rebels’ Smokehouse, a barbecue restaurant in Beverley, East Yorkshire, for three years until we sold up in February. Restaurants are good fun, but tough. You’re face to face with the public all the time. It’s all about having great staff. I hire people for their attitude – they can be trained for the rest.

I’m a keen motorcyclist. If it has two wheels, I’ll ride it. My wife and I once biked from the UK to North Cape [the northernmost tip of Europe] and back in 15 days.

I wouldn’t mind the challenge of leading another turnaround. Would I mind the stress again? Well, it gets you up in the morning. I don’t think I’d retire and ride my bike for seven days a week. I’d still want a job to go to.

Ian McIntosh CV

Education MSc in design engineering at Cranfield University; MBA in management at the University of Bradford


1987-93 Financial controller, Effem Germany (part of Mars Inc)

1993-95 General manager, Brossard UK

1995-98 Operations director, Northern Foods

1998-2011 President, west division, AAK

2012 Chief executive, RDS Driving Services



Ian McIntosh is a member of IoD Yorkshire

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About author

Ryan Herman

Ryan Herman

Alongside his work for Director, Ryan has written for SportBusiness International, VICE Sports, Populous, Audi and Gallop Magazine and was previously editor of Sky Sports Magazine.

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