John Macaulay took a local Manchester rock band to China and while the crowd were bobbing their heads to the music, he came up with an idea to create a company that helps people achieve what others around them say is impossible.
John founded the Alchemy Agency in 2011 to provide a consultancy that matches people with remarkable experiences to those with the desire to achieve the extraordinary. The agency boasts a fascinating list of thought leaders, also known as alchemists, including sports and media professionals, a veteran warship commander, a shaman and spiritual healer and a multi-millionaire entrepreneur!
John studied for his MBA at Manchester Business School from 2008 to 2010 and during the programme spent an exchange semester at CEIBS in Shanghai. We spoke with John last week to learn more about this unique business and discovered that aside from providing consultancy services, John and the agency are heavily involved in working with the local Manchester community.
He talks to us about planning the Greater Manchester Film Festival taking place this October, and hints at the prospect of welcoming MBA interns to the firm.
How did you get the idea for the Alchemy Agency?
I did some business development work with a successful actress who used the science of acting to help people in business environments, and helped her find new people. Through that I discovered that many talented people would rather be doing what they are good at rather than business development. The idea struck me to create a brand that recruits people who have rich life experiences to help people looking to grow their businesses or solve various problems in their organizations, or for themselves.
What my team does is go in and use our life stories and experiences to create emotional engagement with people. It’s very much about us inspiring people on a personal level and this differentiates us from the other consultancies where you get defined framework products. If you can build that emotional connection with the people you’re working with then you can understand what their needs are and get them to buy into your suggestions. People often overlook that business is massively emotional.
You were born and bred in Manchester and also studied for your MBA there, why did you decide to start your company in the same city?
I just love the city. It’s a great place to live and work. Of course, I’ve lived away from Manchester but I keep returning! It’s got that diversity that we don’t see in every UK city. I love the fact Manchester already is so progressive and has always been a hotbed of creativity. We’ve always had a reputation for tearing up the rule book and doing things differently. Already globally recognised for music and football, the city is fast becoming hub for media activity, especially with the move of the BBC and the development of MediaCity UK.
How big is the company and how do you choose your alchemists?
We currently have 14 alchemists on board and they work on an associate agent basis but the company offers more than a booking service.
We go into the businesses and I use my MBA experience and prior business acumen to analyze what alchemist(s) they need. For instance we may pull together alchemists specialized in sales, leadership, and marketing, and their advice will be complementary.
A fundamental characteristic found in alchemists are that they are consistently ordinary people who have achieved extraordinary things. They are lateral thinkers who haven’t followed conventions in life.
They’ve achieved things like winning Olympic medals, fighting in wars, and built multi-million dollar businesses. Some of our alchemists are John Amaechi, who transformed himself from an obese child to one of the world's best basketball players; Tayo Irvin Hendrix, who is a a healer, musician, shaman, author and philanthropist; and James Fanshawe who spent 35 years in the Royal Navy, and commanded three warships in a variety of testing operational situations.
What was your biggest take home lesson from the MBA?
My biggest take home lessons are the global connections I've gained and the broadening of my mind. I now know more about business and commerce and I’m pleased I gained this knowledge through a formal setting because at the age of 28 I had risen to managing 200 people in the manufacturing industry without any formal business training. Most of the decisions I made were based on common sense and a little bit of making it up as I went along. I also went into an entrepreneurial venture in property development and when the financial crisis hit, I thought there has never been a better opportunity to go for an MBA.
I saw from research that people who had done MBAs went on to do great and wonderful things, but for me it was more about personal challenge and self development. I’m glad I did because I had a fantastic and enriching time on the Manchester Business School MBA.
What is the most common problem that clients ask you for help with?
Business development is what we get asked for a lot. Especially in the competitive environment, people are looking for unconventional marketing and sales strategies.
Can you share one of the exciting projects you’ve worked on?
Events are a big part of our business. We were appointed to deliver a global entrepreneurship congress. It was a really difficult brief because were jointly appointed by the American Kauffman Foundation and Liverpool City Council. We had to pull off an event that would stimulate both established businessmen and school children. Around 3,000 people attended and speakers we attracted included and eclectic mix from Sir Richard Branson to comedian John Bishop. The event involved about eight months of planning
but it was successful.
For events, it often comes down to the finer details. If you host an otherwise amazing event but don’t have enough tea and coffee that’s how people will remember you. Luckily, we got really great feedback. It's an annual event and is moved around the world. The next one will be held in Rio, and we have been speaking with people over there about ways to cooperate with them.
Does your company hire MBAs?
We have one MBA among the alchemists, James Fanshawe and he is also a Manchester Business School alumnus.I look for people who I find engaging and inspiring, if they have an MBA, that’s a bonus.
Would you consider hiring MBA interns?
Absolutely. I’ve recently given a lot of consideration to that. Again it’s about attitude and not technical knowledge but I find that MBAs care about what they do, have a tremendous work ethic, and are high achievers. The one thing I do find is that some of the theories that are still being taught at business school are 30 to 40 years old. The world is going through so much change, we need to become more unconventional in our business thinking.
Is the company working on any philanthropic projects this year?
We’re involved in two major local projects this year. One is the Greater Manchester Film Festival taking place in October and the other is a big charity music festival also taking place in Manchester. Manchester. Both events will have a community feel to them rather than industry people coming together to drink champagne and pat each other on the back.
We want young people to get a chance to utilize their skills. For the film festival we’ve raised funds and have some amazing people signed up including producers from the movies East is East, West is West, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Harry Potter.
We created an app for the film festival and asked people to record a one minute video of what Manchester means to them. We’ll show these clips at the start of the feature films. This will make the festival accessible to all, not just people already in the film industry. Our ambition is to have the festival scene in Manchester as big as it is in Edinburgh within a decade.
At the music gig we’ll have some top Manchester bands playing, supported by classical musicians from the world renowned Chetham’s School of Music at Manchester Cathedral an 800 year old building which was the birth place of Manchester and Salford. Music For Cities is about nurturing talent that undoubtedly exists in deprived inner-city estates.
And what can we expect from you in the future?
I want to keep working on exciting projects in Manchester and beyond. I choose projects based on whether I’ll enjoy them and not if they’ll pay the mortgage. I also want to get more chances to work in China. I studied at CEIBS on exchange for four months and part of me has an eye on the opportunities there. I know the culture is different but it would be nice to build connections with a view to promoting the Alchemy Agency over there.