Monday interview: Eileen Blackburn, French Duncan

Eileen Blackburn is looking to build French Duncan's eastern approaches. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Eileen Blackburn is looking to build French Duncan's eastern approaches. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Through the bay windows at 56 Palmerston Place, it’s just possible to catch a glimpse of Edinburgh’s Bonham Hotel, which was sold earlier this year as part of the Town House Collection brand.

Gazing down at it from the west end offices of French Duncan, Eileen Blackburn notes that the deal marked the end of a long working relationship between her firm and Town House, formerly owned by veteran hotelier Peter Taylor.

Despite that, the hospitality sector remains a big earner for the east coast arm of French Duncan, the Scottish accountancy firm that dates its roots back to 1902.

Its network of offices, which also covers Glasgow, Hamilton and Stirling, employs nearly 200 people generating annual fee income of more than £10 million. Although a significant player in the west, French Duncan’s presence and profile is decidedly more limited in the capital. Blackburn’s job as newly-promoted principal partner is to expand the Edinburgh operation and restore some balance.

“We would like to become more of a force in the east,” she says. “We are looking for potential mergers, and also perhaps some lateral hires.”

While continuing to build upon the hospitality team led by Barry Laurie, Blackburn also sees potential for expansion in the food and drink, healthcare and construction sectors – areas where the extended French Duncan network has particular expertise. Raising brand awareness is also crucial.

“It’s about getting out and being a bit evangelical,” she says.

Though it might not immediately seem evident, Blackburn’s background in corporate insolvency has prepared her well for the task ahead. In addition to leading the Edinburgh office, she continues as head of French Duncan’s recovery and insolvency division.

“Getting new business is something our department has been good about, because we don’t tend to have repeat customers,” she explains. “Every time we finish with a client we have to find another one to replace them.”

Blackburn started her career on a training contract with a small firm in Glasgow before joining what was then PKF in 1989. With an interest in the legal side of accountancy and a passion for problem-solving, she was quickly drawn into insolvency. She went on to work with Kidsons Impey, which would later become Baker Tilly, before joining French Duncan in 2003. All together, she spent 25 years working in Glasgow before the 2008 acquisition of McCabes by French Duncan led to a transfer to Edinburgh.

During her career Blackburn has also been a member of the Scottish Technical Committee of R3, the trade body for insolvency practitioners set up in 1995, and has worked closely with the Accountant in Bankruptcy to develop personal insolvency legislation. She gave evidence to the Scottish Government during the Bankruptcy and Protected Deed Trust consultations in 2013, and is currently involved in the overhaul of the Scottish Corporate Insolvency Rules.

Although part of her job is to help firms avoid going bust – she estimates that nearly half survive to “fight another day” – Blackburn concedes that professionals in her field rarely rank high in the popularity ratings.

“Very often people will say to me things like, ‘It was nice to meet you, but I hope I don’t have to see you again’,” she says. “They might like me, but obviously they don’t want to be in a position where they need my services.”

Her expanded role is part of a broader programme to modernise within French Duncan, which like all professional firms is dealing with changing regulations and the rise of cloud-based accounting software. New markets, an increasingly diverse offering and value-added services are at a premium.

Audit and accountancy currently generates about half of French Duncan’s turnover, followed by tax and compliance (20 per cent) and restructuring and insolvency (20 per cent). The remainder comes from other services such as corporate advisory.

Blackburn’s patch in Edinburgh also includes a six-strong office from French Duncan’s newly-rebranded wealth management arm, which provides financial advice to private clients, business owners and trustees.

The firm as a whole has expanded in recent years through strategic acquisitions such as the 2012 merger with Macfarlane Gray, which extended French Duncan’s network into Stirling. That was followed in 2014 by the acquisition of boutique accountancy firm Abercrombie Gemmell of Bearsden.

The main hub in Glasgow solidified its status as the anchor of the network with a move last year to new Grade A offices in Finnieston. It includes more than 13,000sf ft of space overlooking The Hydro, and is home to the lion’s share – nearly 100 – of French Duncan’s employees.

By contrast, Edinburgh has roughly 35 staff, including four of the firm’s 19 partners. With her campaign to expand in the capital, Blackburn hopes to even out the east-west divide.

“McCabe’s was very big in Edinburgh, and we didn’t quite make the impact with French Duncan that we could have,” she says. “It’s time to get out and bang the drum a bit.”

30-second CV

Born: Haddington, 1960

Raised: East Lothian

Education: Ross High School, Tranent; Napier College; Forth Valley College

First job: Waitressing in the Old Smiddy in Pencaitland – I loved it.

Ambition at school: I wanted to be a journalist. I was interested in writing and in people.

Can’t live without: This is really boring, but nowadays, my reading glasses.

Kindle or book: The Kindle is great for holidays, but I prefer the physicality of a book.

Favourite city: New York, without hesitation.

Preferred mode of transport: I drive most of the time because of the convenience, but I quite like a long train journey as well.

What car do you drive: A BMW 420 xDrive

What makes you angry: There are things that upset me, and there are things that annoy me, but I am not a particularly angry person.

What inspires you: Artistic talent.

Best thing about your job: The people I work with, and the opportunity to help people solve problems that to them seem insurmountable.