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Business Observer Thursday, May 14, 2009 13 years ago

Where are they now?: Man of the People

Amscot Financial serves the financial services needs of many consumers who prefer to cash checks at a location other than a bank.

Amscot Financial serves the financial services needs of many consumers who prefer to cash checks at a location other than a bank.

When you want to be the Wal-Mart of your industry, that means building critical mass for convenience and offering a value for repeat business. For Ian MacKechnie, that means coming into the office seven days a week, something that he says inspires other employees.

“I think they like to see the CEO here, seeing that you are in this with them,” says MacKechnie, founder and chief executive officer of Tampa-based Amscot Financial, a retail check-cashing, bill-paying and financial services company with 174 locations in 18 Florida counties, including the Tampa Bay market.

Amscot's big, yet controlled growth from 2004 to 2006 is one of the reasons the Gulf Coast Business Review named MacKechnie the paper's 2006 entrepreneur of the year. He was also chosen for his entrepreneurial, risk-taking philosophy and because of how he has rebounded from a failed business and other challenges.

Twenty years after starting Amscot, where does 2009 find MacKechnie, 65, a self-made man that didn't graduate from high school? Still at the wheel of Amscot, still working long hours. Leading new initiatives. And still enjoying it.

“We're continuing to grow cautiously,” he says in a soft Scottish accent. “We've never closed a location yet.”

Prior to this year, Amscot enjoyed five years of strong growth. The key to being a successful entrepreneur, MacKechnie says, is knowing your customer. He did that when he and his wife started the company in June 1989 and MacKechnie worked behind the counter in the original Amscot in Tampa for seven years.

MacKechnie learned what the customers wanted and he worked to provide it for them. Amscots remain open late and do business seven days a week.

MacKechnie moved to Tampa from Scotland in 1986. After success in the bakery and cafe business in Scotland, MacKechnie bought a bakery in Tampa. But he couldn't get the volume of business he needed and sold the business, taking a $1 million loss.

While running the bakery, he noticed that his employees were cashing paychecks in stores, bars and other locations other than banks. When he asked them why, they told him it was convenient. So MacKechnie came up with the idea for Amscot.

The MacKechnies opened two check-cashing stores, near Ybor City and the University of South Florida's Tampa campus. Amscot, short for American Scottish, quickly developed into a strong brand by offering a safe place for cashing checks without putting holds on them.

MacKechnie's second business challenge in the United States came in 1998 when he was indicted by a grand jury after a subsidiary selling insurance was targeted in a sting operation by then-Florida Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson. The charges against MacKechnie were eventually dropped, but the legal fees nearly bankrupted the company. However, MacKechnie rallied Amscot and increased revenue.

The history of Amscot is not only about expansion of locations, but also about new services. After check cashing came bill paying, and small loans. Years ago the company added tax preparation to its services. More recently, MacKechnie introduced pre-paid Amscot debit cards, which are proving to be popular.

MacKechnie's two sons are also a big part of the future of Amscot.  Fraser MacKechnie, 34, is chief operating officer. Ian Andrew MacKechnie, 41, is executive vice president. Jean, MacKechnie's wife, is head of the accounts payable department.

Looking ahead, MacKechnie sees more growth for Amscot in the fundamentals of its business. It will need to adapt with technology, but it still sees a need for its services.

“We believe we'll be here in 20 years,” MacKechnie says. “We wouldn't be growing if there were no need for these services.”

MacKechnie wants to be the Walmart of financial services. But ironically, Walmart is now in the check-cashing business. MacKechnie said the speed and convenience of Amscot should help it keep its customers.

“We welcome the competition,” MacKechnie says. “The key to success in business is focus.”

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