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West Highlands firm Robop: A tale of business success, ‘sharks’, disaster and rebirth

John Donald owned a business that sold for £14.5 million but got only £35,000 out of it.

John Donald, of Robop, near Arisaig.
John Donald, of Robop, near Arisaig. Image: DCT Media

Every Monday, we ask small businesses key questions. Here we speak to robot bird expert John Donald, who runs Robop from near Arisaig.

How and why did you start in business?

Born in Glasgow in 1951, I graduated in physics in 1973 and spent the next seven years in various engineering and marketing roles. I worked on some fascinating projects for Marconi Space and Defence Systems in Camberley, Surrey. I also met and married my wife, Becky, who worked for the same company.

I left Marconi in 1980 determined to make more money and spent the next four years selling cutting-edge computer technology, first in this in this country and then in the US. Exciting times, but high risk. I travelled all over Europe and 27 US states before returning to Scotland and a brief period with a start-up semiconductor firm before it ran out of cash. Jobs were in very short supply, and things came to a head when I missed out on one because I was “too entrepreneurial”, It was 1985 and time to go it alone.

How did you get to where you are today?

We developed a number of exciting businesses, with one having Sir Richard Branson as one of its first customers. We sold it for £14.5 million, but I received only £35,000 and other staff and early shareholders got nothing, all thanks to a very bad deal we’d done with venture capitalist sharks.

In 2001 fellow electronics entrepreneur Alan Davie called me about an idea Bob McIntyre, the owner of a small pest control business, had come up with – robotic peregrine falcon bird deterrents. Alan, finance specialist Bob Samuels and I met the day after 9/11 and Robop was born.

Covid crashed our winning business

The idea was a winner, but accessing finance was the problem. The business took almost 13 years to really take off, growing by 330% year-on-year between 2014 and 2019. We had an amazing client base of big international corporations and exported to 18 countries.

Then came Covid. Turnover crashed, CBILS (Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme) repayments were prohibitive and we were forced into liquidation, losing all the time and money we’d invested over 21 years.

Fortunately, we managed to buy the assets back from the liquidator and in August 2022, after moving to Arisaig, we started again, trading as Robop Systems Engineering.

This August we completed our first export order to Canada, manufactured entirely in Arisaig.

Becky and I also have two other companies, our firm rule being no loans, no outside investors and definitely no venture capitalists.

Who helped you?

Family, suppliers and customers, many of whom took huge personal career risks to buy an unproven product because they believed in us and our inventions.

The Federation of Small Businesses has made some brilliant introductions.

The Bank of Scotland and Royal Bank of Scotland have both been supportive, while Scottish Chambers of Commerce virtual trade missions generated many useful contacts.

Mary Campbell of Blas and Resilient Corporates steered us through liquidation and on to the rebirth. Jude McCory of The Cyber and Fraud Centre – Scotland helped us recover a substantial sum stolen in a scam and Scottish Enterprise’s co-investment scheme provided invaluable additional funding.

Finally, the National Composites Centre in Bristol showed us how to make our R:Falcons lighter, stronger and better.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever had?

“Remember John, in business, when one door closes another slams in your face”. This advice came from Ronnie Higgins founder and owner of Torness Motors.

What is your biggest mistake?

Not walking away from a bad deal with venture capitalists.

What is your greatest achievement?

Creating, jobs, opportunities and exports from Scotland that would not have existed otherwise.

How is your business managing rapidly rising costs and what should government do to help?

We save customers large sums and have no direct competition, so we increased prices.

Government should end late payments – the ability of large companies to fund their operations through supplier credits. And while start-up capital was fairly easy to obtain for Robop, giving a small, ambitious Scottish company that’s actually making and exporting robots a small sum to help it scale up – forget it.

What do you still hope to achieve?

To build the new company up, sell it and finally retire.

What do you do to relax?

Driving, walking, cycling on my new e-bike and sailing. Oh, and pushing my two-year-old grandson up and down hill to the village – a two-mile round trip.

What are you currently reading, listening to or glued to on TV?

I’ve just finished a Landscapes in Stone book (by Alan McKirdy) about the geology of the Small Isles. Before that, I read The Unremembered Places (Patrick Baker) about Scotland’s wild histories.

Porsche 911 Carrera in guards red.
Mr Donald’s dream car, a Porsche 911 Carrera in guards red. Image: Shutterstock

What do you waste your money on?

Heating. I can’t stand being in a cold house.

What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?

Feed the cat then record data from my weather station.

What do you drive and dream of driving?

I drive a Saab 9-5 Aero Estate – runs like a Rolex, despite having 228,807 miles on the clock – and a Honda S2000, Berlingo van and Toyota Alphard Ecocamper. Dream car? A Porsche 911 Carrera in guards red.