HE HAS worked with some of Scotland’s best-known entrepreneurs and companies so perhaps it is no surprise that Graeme Bissett believes his career has been something of an education, writes Terry Murden.
Sir Tom Farmer, Jim McColl and the hotelier Peter Taylor are just three of those he has shared advice with as he has built a portfolio of directorships.
His back catalogue has included the exhaust and tyre firm Kwik-Fit and the Dunbar brewer Belhaven. Nowadays he sits on six boards, two as chairman.
“You have to be ruthless and disciplined with your time,” he says. “The opportunity to work with different teams is terrific.”
Being a serial director brings enormous variety and the chance to pick and choose, but Bissett always focuses on the quality of the people and whether he can quickly get to grips with a company to which he can add some value.
“The criteria for me is whether it is a business I can understand intuitively, and understand from the customer’s perspective,” he says.
Since succeeding Archie Hunter as chairman of Glasgow packaging company Macfarlane last May he has been restructuring the board and this month completed the new team with the appointment of Bob McLellan, a former chief executive of rival packaging firm DS Smith. McLellan joins industry veteran Mike Arrowsmith and former Johnston Press finance director Stuart Paterson as a non-executive director.
They will build on recently-published results that showed a 27 per cent leap in annual pre-tax profits following a move into internet retailing which has grown as a proportion of the business from a standing start to 20 per cent of sales in just five years. The online world has opened up new markets but Bissett is aware that not everyone approves of the increase in packaging.
“What people do not realise is that, without packaging, nothing moves, but of course people are critical of it and we had to accommodate those concerns.”
Despite the boardroom reshuffle, he likes to encourage stability as well as knowledge in a company. He is not opposed to the various codes on corporate governance but he does like to have some flexibility. “I am a fan of longevity. Having the directors there for a sustained period is good for business,” he says. “Nine years is long enough for a non-executive director, but there is a degree of artificiality about the recommended timescales.”
Bissett, 55, was born in Edinburgh and trained as an accountant. In the 1990s he was a senior partner responsible for the audit and corporate finance business at Arthur Andersen which represented half the practice in Scotland. His contemporaries included Fred Hallsworth and Eric Hagman who continue to work Scottish and UK boardrooms. “We had an excellent team, good quality people,” says Bissett who left Andersen four years before its implosion over the Enron scandal. He was invited by Farmer to join Kwik-Fit as finance director.
“It was great to work alongside Tom. He was a guy you could not fail to learn from.”
But Ford’s acquisition of Kwik-Fit just a year later was to prove a bitter sweet experience. Ford paid £1 billion for the Scottish firm but its scale was such that Bissett recalls being told that Ford made more interest on its cash deposits than it paid for the company. Bissett found it an unwieldy organisation. “The scale of an organisation often mitigates against entrepreneurial action. Ford was slowing things down. It was not a happy marriage.”
He was briefly associated with the Edinburgh trams, having an advisory role to the now-disbanded TIE organisation that ran the controversial project on behalf of Edinburgh council. Since then he has focused on his portfolio of boardroom positions that includes the online tyre firm Blackcircles, the Townhouse company and the container firm Interbulk, one of McColl’s interests. “He is another individual you learn a lot from. His grasp of business and his ability to translate complex issues into action is quite remarkable.”
Bissett also chairs the board of the charity Children 1st. He had already been involved with Childline and found it humbling to work with those in less fortunate circumstances.
“The statistics are mind-blowing. The equivalent of one child in every classroom in the country is considered to be a cause of concern for their safety. We reach 5,000 every year. Unfortunately, the problem is not going away, but Children 1st has some fantastic people working for it.
“It is inspiring to just listen to them. You come away from a meeting with these people and then see an email from someone whining about something not really that important and it puts everything into perspective.”
The Townhouse company takes Bissett into the wealthy and boutique end of the hotels business. It owns Blythswood Square, Glasgow’s only five-star hotel which was thought to have run into some difficulty. Bissett admits that there were building problems when one of the firms involved went bust and debts were mounting.
But Bank of Scotland proved supportive and the hotel is now “trading well” along with the other hotels in the group, including the Bonham in Edinburgh.
Bissett likes to think he can add some value through his appointments but he doesn’t regard himself, as do some serial directors, as a company doctor brought in to fix or restructure a company. “I have done a number of advisory assignments but someone doing that needs to be full-on and it demands a lot of time,” he says.
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