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Newlyweds who started Aberdeenshire firm with £2,000 excavator now run £65m business

Willie and Elaine Donald said they were "mad and young" 47 years ago when they started WM Donald, which now employs 247 staff.

Willie and Elaine Donald started their successful business with a second-hand excavator 47 years ago. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson
Willie and Elaine Donald started their successful business with a second-hand excavator 47 years ago. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

Willie and Elaine Donald were just newly married when they decided to go-ahead and start their own business.

A second-hand excavator, costing £2,000, a typewriter and kitchen table was the start of civil engineering firm WM Donald.

Now, 47 years later, the couple employ more than 240 staff and have a turnover of £65m.

It’s been a remarkable journey for the couple who met at a young farmers gathering when Elaine was 16 and Willie 17.

WM Donald has gone on to become one of the most well-known and recognisable firms in the north-east with their vans a regular sight on the roads.

Headquartered in Netherley, near Stonehaven, and with offices in Inverness and Perth the business has grown remarkably over the years.

‘We wanted to give it a go and are still here’

The couple, who have eight grandchildren, got married in January 1977 and in August that year decided the time was right to start WM Donald.

Elaine said: “Willie was working as a plant fitter for James Bowen & Sons in Back Hilton Road and did get the chance of a job offshore.

“It was one of those catch 22 situations.

First piece of machinery bought by WM Donald. Image: WM Donald

“Moneywise I think he was on £5 an hour. But I think secretly at the back of his head he always felt like running his own business was something he wanted to do.

“We bought a second-hand excavator for £2,000 and that was it.

“We did think can we do this? Are we mad? We are young.

“But we wanted to give it a go and we are still here.”

For Willie he always knew he was destined to move in to construction work.

He said: “It was always in my blood. My father Marr was in the business but died when I was 13.

“It was so easy when oil started to move in to the oil and I had been offered a job offshore.

“But we bought the first machine and that was it.”

WM Donald growing

Elaine was working as a full-time medical receptionist at a surgery in Aberdeen’s Queen’s Terrace and would spend her evenings working for the business.

She said: “I still had a job so I was doing paper work in the evenings.

“I had my typewriter and that was me. Basically we did everything from the kitchen table.

Willie and Elaine Donald started their business WM Donald in 1977. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

“Willie was out in the machine and it was never here. It got moved from site to site.

“It was good. We got enough work to keep us going. There wasn’t loads but there was work coming in. It was enough for Willie on his own and me to do the paperwork.

“He’d sort out the wage packets and I would fill them in and deliver them to site.”

Willie’s first job took him to the former Mugiemoss Mills in Aberdeen.

He said: “My first job was to clean out the culvert at Mugiemoss Mills which is now a large housing scheme that keeps us going today.

“We’ve done most of the work there. It was my first job and now we are back there again.

“A different generation with different machinery.”

In 1978 WM Donald hired its first member of staff, Gordon Scott, who still carries out work for the firm.

Juggling work life with family life

Life got even busier for the couple in 1980 with the birth of their first daughter Fiona, followed by Lyndsey and Karen.

Elaine said: “I continued to work. I had a baby under one arm and a phone in the other. There was no maternity leave back then as far as I was concerned.

“I just got on with it.

“Once the kids were in bed we used to do what we had to do.”

Elaine and Willie pictured with their daughters at WM Donald’s 40th anniversary celebrations in August 2017. Image: DC Thomson

Willie revealed the couple have always ran the business without an overdraft after being unable to set up a meeting with his bank manager.

He said: “The one thing I remember was the bank manager was requiring myself to come in and meet him about overdraft facilities.

“But he didn’t seem to work the same hours as me. I thought he should come and see me.

“But he kindly wrote back and said to me that our overdraft had been withdrawn. It made us concentrate thereafter as to how you handle things and we still don’t work an overdraft.”

Continued growth

Now nearly 47 years later the couple employ 247 people, including their youngest daughter Karen, 34, and 20-year-old grandson Liam Dawson.

There’s 42 employees based in Inverness and 34 in Perth.

The company recorded turnover of £64.9m in its accounts for the year ending March 31, 2023 with pre-tax profits of £6m.

Elaine said: “We never really thought it would work out as it has.

“We always said we weren’t going to get to big. But things happened.

Some of the 247 staff employed at WM Donald. Image: WM Donald

“We’ve got a great bunch of staff and people who have been with us more than 30 years.”

Current managing director Ewan Riddoch originally joined the business in 1991 as a surveyor before becoming a director in 1999.

WM Donald has remained on the site of the family farm Willie grew up on and in 2019 their new headquarters was opened by the then Duke of Rothesay, now King Charles.

Award winning business

Over the years the business has won a number of awards, including the Press & Journal cHeRries, Northern Star and Trades Awards, recognising its efforts in the industry.

It also raised £60,000 for north-east charity Friends of Anchor as part of its 40th birthday celebrations through fundraising.

Elaine said: “We’ve been really lucky and won awards in business which is something we’ve not done in the past.

Elaine Donald with WM Donald’s business of the year accolade at the Northern Star Business Awards 2024. Image: Newsline Media

“But in the last couple of years we’ve had a few which has been brilliant for the staff.

“It’s them that makes the business. You need everybody. It’s the guys on the ground that matter.”

Some of the projects WM Donald has been involved in includes the new food and drink hub One SeedPod, Ellon park and ride extension and the Slackbuie development in Inverness.

Despite being 69, Willie is still sometimes found helping with some work – but admits he’s thought about retiring.

He said: “I still like to go out and do odd jobs on the tools. Not all the time.

“The boys like it and it keeps me involved.

“I did consider retiring at 50 because I thought I’d put in the same work as what a normal person would do to 65 but that didn’t work.”

‘It’s worked well for us’

Looking back on where WM Donald started to where they are now Willie said: “It’s been slow growth. Never over stretching yourself has been the main thing.

“Quite often it doesn’t work husband and wife together and you get clashes but it’s worked well for us.

Willie and Elaine Donald pictured outside their offices in Netherley. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

“I know who’s the boss,” he laughed.

Elaine said: “Looking back it was quite difficult but I didn’t think anything about it.

“I must have been mad but we are very proud. We sometimes look back and think wow.

“I’m a very humble person. I just do what I do.”