The Big Interview: Tim Allan, the president of Scottish Chambers of Commerce

'We have to have a root-and-branch look as a country at ourselves about how we prepare our young folk for the world of work,' says Tim Allan. Picture: Toby Williams
'We have to have a root-and-branch look as a country at ourselves about how we prepare our young folk for the world of work,' says Tim Allan. Picture: Toby Williams
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Having debuted as president of Scottish Chambers of Commerce (SCC) this month, Tim Allan brings extensive private-sector experience in industries that are key north of the Border, including financial services and property.

But he stresses that his prior spell in the army, spending ten years in the Royal Tank Regiment, taught him two qualities that are essential in business.

“You can’t get on in the army if you haven’t got resilience and discipline. It’s the ultimate team,” he says.

When it was revealed that he was taking on the president role at SCC, the umbrella organisation for 26 local chambers with 11,000 members and representing more than half of private-sector jobs in Scotland, he said it came at a “critical” time for the business community.

With Brexit negotiations and debate over a second Scottish independence referendum already providing plenty to contend with, the recent news of a snap general election has further rocked the boat. “We are in the middle of a storm here on the constitution both in England and in Scotland… and we need some clear water just to draw breath for a while,” Allan says.

He believes that while business has built some tolerance to uncertainty, politicians have a duty to “return us to a degree of stable normality, where people can look at business and have confidence that they can invest in Scotland and in this country”.

His new appointment, after he served as president of Dundee and Angus Chamber of Commerce from 2014 to 2016, “will be to lobby those politicians and to consult with our members… and take that information to our policy-makers both in Holyrood and Westminster, making sure they are listening to what business needs”.

In 2010 he was awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion, and is a fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, and believes his experience of the corporate world is essential for role as Chambers president. Politicians are “trying to do what they see is best, whatever political view they have. But what they don’t have is necessarily experience of business.”

Flagging a lack of effective collaboration in Scotland between the public and private sectors, “what SCC would like to do is to help both the government and the public sector understand better what business can do in partnership, because I really believe that business should be a force for good in its community and SCC should be a force for good across Scotland”.

A member of the Scottish committee of the BIG Lottery Fund for seven years, he studied history at the University of St Andrews, where he is now a member of court, then set off to Sandhurst for the military part of his career, the latter two years of which were spent as equerry to the Duke of York.

He is also a founder and director of Motor Fuel Group (MFG), the second-largest independent forecourt operator in the UK with more than 400 petrol stations operating under the BP, Shell, Texaco and Jet fuel brands.

It is major business, he says, with former Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy on its board and Scottish oil tycoon Alasdair Locke chairman. In 2015 it was sold to Clayton, Dubilier & Rice by fellow private-equity firm Patron Capital in a £500 million deal.

Allan believes MFG provides “a very good perspective of business across the UK… we see where the fuel volumes are”, and this serves as a kind of “barometer of British economic activity. When people are busy they get in their cars.

“We know that in 2012 after the Olympic Games, we started to see an end to the doldrums of economic activity since 2008’s crash, and we started to see a lift in volumes.”

The group is now seeing high levels of activity in England, but the picture is less rosy north of the Border. It comes as Scotland found itself flirting with recession after its economy shrank in the last quarter of 2016, in contrast to growth by the UK over the same period. SCC just days ago said the Scottish economy remains “subdued”.

Allan says there are several factors as to why many of Scotland’s economic indicators are falling behind the UK average, adding: “If it’s uncertain for the UK to have Brexit looming over them, it’s doubly uncertain for Scotland to have Brexit and indyref2. Until we get some clarity… it’s going to be hard to see how investors will necessarily have confidence. We’ve got to focus on the real attractiveness of doing business in Scotland.”

One issue where SCC chief executive and director Liz Cameron has criticised the Scottish Government is its “high tax agenda”, and she recently singled out higher business rates for medium and large firms than in England, for example. Allan says Cameron’s views are “absolutely bang on – she reflects the views of our members. Scotland has to be competitive… we cannot have a differential that means it’s punitive to do business in Scotland, otherwise we’ll lose out on that investment. We are constantly going to be speaking to government about ensuring that we remain competitive at all levels.”

He is also chief executive of Unicorn Property Group, which has a commercial and residential portfolio. “I realise the challenges of the property sector in Scotland,” he says, adding that it is difficult to attract investment from the rest of the UK.

Unicorn is involved in the regeneration of Dundee’s waterfront, and Allan is also vice chair of the V&A Museum of Design Campaign. “I don’t think we quite yet as a country realise what an asset it’s going to be,” he says.

The entrepreneur adds that in his business ventures, property “worked okay, but petrol stations have worked really well”, with consumers always buying fuel despite fluctuations in cost and the industry therefore less sensitive to headwinds that have buffeted the real-estate sector.

Prior to these organisations, and after leaving the army, he spent seven years in private-wealth management, working for Citigroup and UBS with top UK entrepreneurs.

Being employed by Swiss and American organisations gave him “a wholly different perspective of the world and a real global view of things”, and he is a passionate advocate of internationalisation, one of his key goals while SCC president. “Scotland does not do enough trade abroad. We really lag behind,” he says.

Data published by the Scottish Government at the start of this year found that Scotland’s international exports (excluding oil and gas) showed a £1bn year-on-year jump to £28.7bn in 2015. Of this amount, exports to EU countries were estimated at £12.3bn, while those by Scottish onshore firms to the rest of the UK grew by £2.1bn to an estimated £49.8bn. Highlighting the latter, Allan says: “We’ve got to keep close to our biggest trading partner.”

Returning to the international agenda, he says the SCC is “working actively with the Scottish Government on improving exporting and international connections”. One of his first initiatives is leading an eight-day trade visit of SCC members to Beijing and eastern China to open up business-to-business links. “I would like to see us actively with strong links abroad – whether it’s to Europe, America or China. I’d like to see links that we haven’t had before.”

His other key priority in his SCC role is tackling the issue of the skills shortage in Scotland. It is “all members complain about,” he points out. “We have to have a root-and-branch look as a country at ourselves about how we prepare our young folk for the world of work.”

Looking ahead to when his SCC tenure ends – set for March 2019 but with scope to extend – Allan would like to have made a difference regarding these “major points of focus” of skills and internationalisation.

Companies have a role to play too, he adds, again citing his amed forces experience. “The wonderful thing about the army is that its product is its people – I think if businesses could focus on their people more, then we might get better productivity.”