Big interview: Liz McAreavey, chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce,

Welsh-born Liz McAreavey transformed a small deli in Edinburghs West End into Le Bistro Hospitality, which had 150 employees and turnover of �7 million. Photograph: Scott Louden
Welsh-born Liz McAreavey transformed a small deli in Edinburghs West End into Le Bistro Hospitality, which had 150 employees and turnover of �7 million. Photograph: Scott Louden
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In 1766, a competition was announced to design Edinburgh’s New Town, in a bid to tackle overcrowding, stem the flow of people leaving for London and help the Scottish city reach “Athens of the North” status, with a desire for improvement having dated back to the 1680s.

The winner was architect James Craig, with work starting in 1767 and finishing in 1850 with the ordered layout we know today.

Fast-forwarding to the present day, and with efforts under way to drive the 2050 Edinburgh City Vision, the lengthy timescales of realising Craig’s proposal are cited by Liz McAreavey, chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, to give some perspective on the pace of effecting change.

His plan was “170 years in the planning and 83 years in the delivery – and we’re worried about a 2050 vision that’s 35 years away,” she says. “People are going ‘it’s too far [ahead]’, and you think ‘really?’.”

Welsh-born McAreavey believes that given the City Vision as well as the likes of the Edinburgh and South East of Scotland City Region Deal and the 1.7 million square-foot Edinburgh St James scheme, the Scottish capital “seems to be in the ascendancy”.

She is adamant that the Chamber, which held its first meeting in December 1785 and says it recommended the daily one o’clock gun being fired from Edinburgh Castle, is well-placed to help drive this growth.

“We have 1,000 members and we really want to grow that and build on our respect and influence in the city,” McAreavey says. “I think the City Deal, over the next ten years, can transform what Edinburgh looks like, particularly around arts and culture.”

McAreavey has been the Chamber’s chief executive since October, having held the role on an acting basis since April. She had originally joined the organisation in 2010, in 2011 seconded to Essential Edinburgh, for a spell as interim chief executive.

Regarding her current title being made official, she says: “It’s a nice feeling when you have been under scrutiny for six months and delivered. I feel I have just got the perfect job for me now.”

She says the Chamber is financed independently, from sources such as membership subscriptions rather than government or local authority funding, and highlights that it has also become more efficient.

“We have gone through some staff changes and a restructure,” she says. “A few staff left to progress their career and it just gave me the opportunity to look at the way we operate.”

She praises the Chamber’s detailed view of what is going on in the city, highlighting that she sits on key groups covering the city’s culture, tourism and business sectors, and she has regular meetings with, for example, the chief executive of the council and key corporates.

“It’s a wonderful brand, the Chamber,” McAreavey says. “If you pick up the phone for a meeting with very senior people, you will get it.”

Her own foray into business came with being what she describes as the “accidental entrepreneur”.

Having moved to Edinburgh, to earn some extra money as a student she started baking flapjacks and cookies at home, selling them to local delis and coffee shops.

One place in particular, in the city’s West End, made a particularly strong impression. “You walked in and there were salamis hanging from the ceiling, hundreds of cheeses, an old-fashioned coffee grinder, and I thought ‘this is what I want to do’.”

Like Remington magnate Victor Kiam she liked it so much she bought the company, funded with a bank loan, and it mushroomed from sandwich and deli operation with five workers to an outside catering operation with a “brigade” of chefs, fleets of vehicles and 150 staff.

Le Bistro Hospitality’s turnover also reached £7 million, with customers including the Royal Yacht Britannia, Glasgow Science Centre and most of the major venues in Scotland, and McAreavey tackled it with military levels of organisation.

“Learning to organise, plan, structure a business… that was critical for me and I think ever since, if I really need to understand a business, the only thing I really need is an organisational structure and a [profit and loss] account.”

The catering business’s high-profile client base also proved a valuable education in light of her current role, and she says: “I learned to network by accident because when you are providing hospitality you are naturally engaged with people. I think networking is actually engaging in a meaningful conversation with someone, and if you have that connection it sees you through your career.”

She eventually sold the business in 2001, followed by working in business consultancy, and in 2005 joined Deloitte to lead its brand and business development for Scotland, while in 2007 she became a director at Ernst & Young, heading its market leadership strategy.

As for whether she misses her days at the catering firm, she says: “I very often say that because we were young and fearless at that time and we had nothing, we had nothing to lose.

“Being part of a point in time when you are pioneers and you are really changing the way an industry works, that gives you a real buzz.

“I look back on it and it is a very special time of my life. That said, every part of the journey adds to your knowledge and experience so when you get to [my age] then it’s a joy to look back at the highs and lows.”

She is also a passionate advocate of mentoring, saying she knows first-hand that it “makes a massive impact”, and it is among the Chamber’s services, backed by a bank of about 300 experienced mentors.

“To me, business is about experience,” McAreavey says. “I don’t think anyone is born a natural businessperson.”

She believes that only after being in situations time and time again and making increasingly informed decisions can you be sure what works, and it is impossible to overestimate “the impact of bringing good experience into a business”.

Amid ambitions to grow the Chamber’s membership by a quarter “pretty soon”, she adds: “Just coming to our events, you never fail to meet somebody who has got an inspiring story or a great idea or has faced what you are facing and can give you some advice.

“If you are prepared to go out and speak to other people, you constantly raise your ambitions and your aspirations because you can see what other people are doing and you want to grow.”

She is also adamant about existing Chamber members maximising the benefits of participation, saying that if not they will be miss out on “a whole raft of support”, and such benefits can translate into increased multiples when firms are looking to exit or sell.

The Chamber does “a phenomenal amount of work,” she continues. “We have 140 events a year, we run training and development on the international side of things, we have developed a whole series of briefing sessions and round tables.”

This year marks the 250th anniversary of James Craig’s plan being officially adopted by Edinburgh’s city council. As for the Chamber’s own plans for 2017, McAreavey says it is looking to maximise international links, with a focus on building relationships with Germany, France and mainland Europe more broadly. This also comes, she notes, after the Scottish Government announced last month that it is allocating up to £400,000 to the Scottish chamber network to help firms build global ties.

There is also a focus on bolstering the Chamber’s membership and associated activities, “so more training and development, more business support.

“But also, we have a strong responsibility to the city’s economy and making sure it grows, so influencing the City Deal and the City Vision is critical for us, and making sure our businesses are represented there.

“These are really exciting times and it’s important that the business community is represented and has an influence on how the city’s economy will develop. We [at the Chamber] are the enablers.”