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Alumnus of the Quarter: Iain McKenzie


From the Outer Hebrides to Leicester and from building sites to financial services, Alumnus of the Quarter Iain McKenzie has had an interesting journey before reaching his current position as Chief Operating Officer at Mattioli Woods.

Iain Mckenzie new thumb

Iain grew up on a small, remote island in the Outer Hebrides called South Uist, and Gaelic was his first language. When he was seven years old his family moved to Dunfermline where he started at a Catholic school. When the family moved again, it was to a Protestant area and Iain recalls many confrontations on the tough housing estate he lived in.

Teachers told Iain that he wouldn’t amount to anything and his parents, who both struggled with alcohol addiction, were not very supportive. With nobody to inspire him, Iain had no particular aspirations for the future.

Sense of achievement

However, when he reached high school, he discovered sport, enjoying football and becoming particularly skilled at rock climbing. Iain recalls, “For the first time, I felt a sense of achievement and had a reason to push myself.”

Iain’s other passion was drawing and he gained a place at on a graphic design course at a college in Glasgow where he completed and HNC and an HND.

Deciding to continue with graphic design, but wanting to get a broader business knowledge too, Iain found a Design Management course and chose 鶹Ƶ Leicester (DMU) because of its location – close to the Peak District for climbing and with good airport links for climbing in Spain.

Iain McKenzie cycling

The path is not always straightforward
Iain enjoyed the course and his time at DMU, meeting many people and making good connections. After finishing his degree, rather than going straight into a design-related job, Iain got a job as a labourer on a building site that enabled him to pay off his student loan and continue with his climbing and climbing coaching.

At age 26, after a few years working in a design agency followed by freelancing, he took a design job with Auto Trader magazine. Iain said, “While seeing my designs on the cover of magazines was exciting, I still really enjoyed teaching climbing which I was still doing part-time at a local leisure centre.”

When Leicester City Council asked Iain to manage the climbing wall facility full time, and make it profitable, Iain left his design job and, using what he had learnt about running a business, turned the climbing wall into a profitable venture.

Iain McKenzie1

A new opportunity
Moving on from the Council, Iain used his passion and expertise for climbing, and business, to set up a new enterprise specialising in the delivery of outdoor team building courses, helping senior leadership teams with risk management, critical thinking, and talent identification.

Mattioli Woods, a financial services provider, was one of Iain’s clients and he was asked by the Chief Executive Officer to join them as an Executive Risk Consultant. This led to a role as Group Operating Officer and then Chief Operating Officer (COO). Iain also sits on the board of directors, overseeing day to day operations of the organisation.

Be brave
Iain’s journey to becoming a COO at a hugely successful financial services group was not straightforward. He took risks and made some tough decisions along the way.

“If you don’t make a decision, a decision is made for you. It’s important that you keep control of decisions and don’t avoid them…don’t delay having tricky conversations or opening worrying letters.

“Try to be decisive and take ownership of the decision – be brave. I was nervous about leaving my climbing business, but I made a decision and was prepared to manage the outcome. For me, failing is not trying – people should always be keen to learn new skills and be agile and adaptable. Also, don’t be afraid to stop doing something that’s not right for you.

“Your final destination isn’t always what you think it’s going to be. Whatever you do, give it 100 per cent. It’s about effort, endeavour, and not being afraid.”

Posted on Friday 3rd November 2023

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