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  • Writer's pictureIan Ritchie

Attracting Scots talent to return home could be shot in the arm for battered economy

Updated: Feb 15, 2021

Scottish Business Insider February 2021

ON, INEVITABLY, a Zoom call recently with a group of senior Scottish businessmen, I was struck how many of them expressed frustration with the Scottish Government and its perceived lack of communication, support or empathy with business issues.

But I think we need to cut them a little slack. The devolved responsibilities of the Scottish Government include maintaining health, education, and policing services in the middle of a brutal pandemic, whereas most of the economic levers which actually affect business are retained by Westminster.

However, as the vaccine programme begins to restore normal economic activity during 2021 and pressures on health and education services diminish, our devolved government will be required to turn their attention to restoring and growing our shattered economy. But without many of the key economic controls what are they to do? Where are our new business champions going to come from, creating jobs and building economic success here in Scotland?

One option might be to find and encourage experienced managers to build new businesses here. When I was a board member of Scottish Enterprise back in 2005, we actively encouraged and supported an engineer at Agilent to start a new business based on his knowledge of the communications technology market. That engineer, Tommy Cook, went on to found Calnex Solutions and last October his company was listed on the AIM market at a value of £42m, the first Scottish company to go public for over two years. Calnex, based at Linlithgow, now employs over 80 engineers and its value has grown to over £100m.

A great success story, but where could we to find other successful, experienced businesspeople to build the next generation of businesses? Scotland is largely a branch economy, with corporate headquarters usually located elsewhere.

Former titans of our economy – Scottish Power, Bank of Scotland, Scottish & Newcastle, Royal Bank of Scotland – are now controlled and run elsewhere.

And many of our best Scottish managers have gained their experience of business outside Scotland – often in London, Europe or the US.

So, might we look to our expat Scots to return to their homeland, with the attraction of being closer to their families and old friends, perhaps avoiding an awful daily commute and seeing more of their children growing up?

We could try. The Irish have similar issues to Scotland – many of their best people have also left to build their management careers overseas.

To address this, a few years ago the Irish Government launched a programme called Back for Business. It provides targeted support and training to people who have recently returned, or who would like to return to Ireland to start businesses.

I recall on a visit to Dublin a few years ago where I was surprised how many technology start-ups were being headed up by people who had returned from careers in Boston or Silicon Valley. Folks who, as a result, had the experience and drive to scale up their companies and face global competition.

This Irish scheme is competitive and is awarded to up to 40 individuals a year. Those who have already gone through the programme have returned from places like New York, Dubai, Australia, and, of course, London.

Setting up such a scheme for Scotland wouldn’t require powers to be devolved from Westminster; indeed, it could be argued that this would be an excellent exemplar to help to achieve the "levelling up" agenda for the UK.

This might effectively demonstrate whether the stated ‘levelling up’ ambition is real – or just another empty political slogan.

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