Being put on hold when you call a business can be frustrating but in the 1980’s it was something new to Alan McGirvan who ran with the idea and the rewards continue to grow.
He may seem like an unlikely businessman, but the man who was the first breakfast show host on the station that became Triple J may well have been a dental assistant if his mother had her way.
Today Alan McGirvan runs the highly successful McGirvanmedia, that counts the likes of Qantas among its list of 600 clients.
It’s a unique business model, using the voices of professionals in Australia to relay corporate messages that play when a customer is put on hold, or when a customer accesses a business via phone.
His company was born when McGirvan was on holiday in the US in the late ’80s and was put on hold during a call for a tourist service.
A voice popped up with corporate messaging, and a light bulb went off for McGirvan. It was a revelation for the radio star who was once named Australian Radio Personality of the Year.
“When I brought it here in 1987 it didn’t exist anywhere in Asia Pacific,” he says.
“It’s funny, a friend of mine said to me ‘people throw the word around (a lot) but in French entrepreneur means builder, that’s what you did, you took this from nothing and built it’.”
It was a big risk for the Newcastle man who, according to his own mother, was not radio material. In fact, he started out his media life working as a television cameraman.
“I used to see guys doing voiceovers and it fascinated me … I got this fantastic motivational talk from my mother when I told her I’d like to be on radio one day. My mother said ‘Alan, we love you, your father can get you an apprenticeship as a dental assistant’. I thought, watch me.”
Having been in radio for about 15 years, including Double J in Sydney, McGirvan pivoted to his own business opening in the late ’80s during a time he says was difficult in Australia for business.
“You don’t become very, very, very good at something until you’ve done it for 10,000 hours. You can be a genius, you can be naturally talented, but until you’ve done it for 10,000 hours you haven’t mastered it.”
“I’d done radio for seven years, mostly in Newcastle. I had done my 10,000 hours.”
So he started McGirvanmedia Messages on Hold out of his apartment in New Farm using a $20,000 business loan.
“My first employee was my sister-in-law Fiona, who was just 20 years old and is still with me today, nowadays as our financial controller,” McGirvan says.
“It was a tough call to sell a product that nobody had really heard of, in an economy that was going downhill.”
He says McGirvanmedia has since grown into the largest messages on hold or voice telephony company on Australia’s east coast, and has sold licences in the UK, Asia, NZ and South Africa.
Its client list includes well known businesses such as Coca-Cola Amatil, McDonald’s, BMW, BUPA, AMP, Citigroup, Aussie and RACV.
“We built it through a very difficult time of Paul Keating’s disastrous recession he had to have,” he says.
“Usually you learn from other people’s mistakes, I had to learn from scratch.
“There was no one else doing it. I’m still amazed at how we did it.
“I think because it was unique. Before that they were only able to patch in radio or electronic music.
“That whole other channel just wasn’t getting used.
“In the early days, those messages went out on endless loop cassette tapes.
“Imagine all those tapes going around, then the next generation was CD and now it’s all digital.
“We pride ourselves on quality of our production and of course our service.”
He says a key moment was when motivational speaker Jim Rohn told him, when the business was just getting started, that “if you can see the invisible, you can do the impossible”.
The quote was something McGirvan went on to write on doors at his business.
In July this year, McGirvanmedia celebrated 30 years as a Qantas supplier, doing all voice overs for its call centres and corporate work.
“We have had quite a few clients for 25 years, like Citibank. We also have several more with over 15 years and over 10 years so we’re doing something right,” he says.
He employs 10 staff and has 16 freelancers on his books in Brisbane. But at any one time, there could be thousands of people listening to his voice or that of one of his freelancers, he says.
“It’s just terrific, I started it here in the region and sold the licence in four countries. You call, get put on hold, and there’s our message.”
He has expanded to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and the business has grown to also include translation services.
“We have a dozen to 15 male and female voices, but with all our Asian translation, we guarantee the accent is perfect for the region. It’s a very big issue.”
He says being based in Brisbane has allowed him to tap into a wide range of talent from rival sides – something other cities can’t offer.
“I could never get competing voiceover people in Sydney or Melbourne to come together,” he says. “That situation could pretty much only occur in Brisbane. These guys are pros and many of them have been with me for over 20 years. They are competitors, but they are all friends.”
He says keeping the talent happy and nurturing long relationships with his extensive client list is how he manages to stay relevant in the digital age.
“We are growing this amazing business, at a great rate, absolutely on referral. That’s relationships, it’s always about people. We make our clients our friends. They have a good experience with us and they tell their friends and colleagues.”
He’s even had corporate executives move jobs and call him at their next business for services. “In any business, if someone comes on referral the price takes a back seat. We work on simple monthly service fee. It’s a very simple model,” he says.
His next plan is to set up voice over schools for the next generation of stars firstly in Brisbane and then Melbourne. In the meantime he enjoys being recognised around town such as when he was in a lift at the Riverside Centre in Brisbane’s CBD where his voice announces ‘ground floor’.
“I was standing in the lift when my voice said ‘ground floor’ and this woman looks at me and says ‘that’s your voice isn’t it?’ She said ‘didn’t you used to be Alan McGirvan?’ That’s probably my story of the year.”