The Big Interview: Jim Pettigrew, chairman of Scottish Financial Enterprise

Jim Pettigrew is concerned that too much regulation is jeopardising prospects for individual companies and the wider economy. Photograph: Steve Cox
Jim Pettigrew is concerned that too much regulation is jeopardising prospects for individual companies and the wider economy. Photograph: Steve Cox
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Today is the 70th anniversary of the Waverley’s maiden launch on the Clyde and Jim Pettigrew, a long-time supporter of the charity behind the world’s oldest operational seagoing paddle steamer, is marking the occasion with a trip aboard his beloved vessel along the Thames.

The journey will include passage under Tower Bridge, the suspension crossing owned and operated by the City of London Corporation, whose job is to promote the Square Mile as an international leader in finance and business services. But its task – and that of Pettigrew, the recently installed chairman of Scottish Financial Enterprise (SFE) – has been greatly complicated by the Brexit vote that took place 100 days past.

Pettigrew prefers to focus on the “huge potential” within the financial services sector. But he also concedes that the UK’s exit from Europe injects another layer of complexity into an industry still rebuilding from the recession. Looking at the history of the Waverley, he draws the parallel that financial services must similarly seek to “marry tradition with the modern era”.

“We are in quite a fluid situation – there are no certainties at this point,” Pettigrew says. “There are a lot of moving parts to consider. The important thing right now is to focus on those things that will stimulate economic activity. We’re not going to replicate the past, but we can build on it.”

He intends to drive this point home at his biggest set-piece so far as the head of SFE, when the trade body hosts its annual awards dinner on 27 October in Glasgow. Finalists are due to be announced this week, and Pettigrew is still fine-tuning his speech for the evening, which he describes as a “gathering of the clans” with some 700 people in attendance. In conjunction with Graeme Jones, who became chief executive of SFE in January, Pettigrew – who officially took over as chair in August – will help lead the tribe through these uncertain times.

Raised the son of a jute mill executive in Dundee, Pettigrew studied law at Aberdeen University followed by a postgraduate degree from Glasgow and qualifying as a chartered accountant with Arthur Young McClelland Moore in the early 1980s.

His first professional employment was as an accountant with Dundee timber merchant J Fleming, but after a couple of years he moved into financial services, joining international insurance broker Sedgwick Group in London.

During 11 years there he worked his way up to group treasurer and deputy chief financial officer before taking the post of finance director at bond broking specialist Garban. It subsequently merged with another rival to create electronic broking group ICAP, which at that time was a member of the FTSE 100. During his eight years there, ICAP’s value grew from £100 million to £4 billion. Pettigrew then joined Ashmore Group, a privately owned asset management firm that was preparing for flotation. He signed on as chief operating officer in 2006, just a few months before Ashmore achieved its London listing.

The final stop in his string of full-time appointments was an 18-month term as chief executive of CMC Markets, the spread betting firm that was in line for a FTSE listing before the credit crunch knocked plans off course. Pettigrew reportedly had a clause in his contract that allowed him to walk away if a listing was not in the offing, which he did in July 2009.

Since then he has worked across a portfolio of part-time appointments headlined by his role as chair of CYBG, which owns Clydesdale Bank following the demerger of it and Yorkshire Bank from Australia’s NAB earlier this year. Other current appointments include non-executive posts at Edinburgh Investment Trust, house builder Crest Nicholson and Royal Bank of Canada (Europe).

He is also immediate past chairman of ICAS, the professional body for chartered accountants in Scotland. Like his role with SFE, that was an unpaid position, though such distinctions appear to have little bearing on Pettigrew’s zeal for the job. “I am a great believer in always doing your best,” he says.

But he remains concerned that the surfeit of regulation which emerged after the financial crash risks drowning prospects for individual companies and the wider economy. If firms are overly bound by compliance obligations, they lose focus on the fundamental objective of growth.

“We all need to make sure that we get the right balance,” Pettigrew says. “We want a vibrant economy, and that remains a very important thing to keep at the forefront of the mind.”

Despite the difficulties of recent years, financial services remains a cornerstone of the economy in Scotland. According to figures from SFE, the sector directly employs about 100,000 people north of the border, and generates £8bn annually – accounting for more than 8 per cent of the country’s onshore economic activity.

But the UK’s decision to leave the EU has called into question the future of the “passporting” system whereby British-based companies can sell financial services anywhere in the European Union. Whether financial firms will retain this access is one of the many unknowns in these early days following the referendum, and has led SFE chief executive Jones to warn that banks and the like could be forced to surrender strong positions in key export markets.

Pettigrew refuses to be drawn on the question of whether this could ultimately force Scottish-based firms to move operations to the Continent.

“It is far too early to start talking in that way,” he says. “I really don’t have anything to say about that except that as far as the companies I am involved with are concerned, the focus right now is on stimulating activity.”

He adds that it has been a “fascinating start” to his time at SFE, where Jones has put together a three-pronged plan for taking the sector forward. This involves embracing technological innovation, bringing in more young talent and developing a long-term strategic direction for the industry.

Pettigrew says there is “no question” that Scotland has the appetite and talent to harness the “huge opportunities” within financial technology, which in turn should assist in attracting more young people into the sector. He wants industry and government to work more closely on developing Scotland into one of the world’s leading hubs for fintech.

“We have lots of the pieces of the jigsaw already,” he says. “It is our job to put those different pieces together, and if we do that well it could be really powerful.

“It is a job for everybody. SFE can play a role in getting that started, and government also has a role to play.”

SFE was previously chaired by former Lloyds TSB Scotland chairman Sir Ewan Brown, who held the trade body post for four years. Speaking at the time of Pettigrew’s appointment, Brown welcomed the “wealth of experience” of his successor and how this will help define the way forward for the industry.

So recently through the door, Pettigrew understandably finds it a bit odd discussing his eventual departure, but he does have a few ideas about what he would like to leave in his wake. This includes an SFE which is well-respected by its members, as well as a “vibrant, diverse” financial services sector.

Getting there will require a fair degree of single-mindedness in an era of many distractions.

“Despite everything that is going on in this rather complicated world we have got, we must stay focused on how we create the right environment in Scotland for growth. We have all got to work together – business, regulators and government – to create that environment.”