Interview: Sir Angus Grossart

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So quiet on the phone that it sounds, at first, like a whisper in the silence.

"Thank you for the interview invitation," says the director of Edinburgh's Noble Grossart merchant bank, and supporting pillar of the arts in Scotland. He does not normally indulge in such things but perhaps we should meet to test our "intellectual chemistry". Secretly, I rather admire this. If you give someone permission to write about you, perhaps you SHOULD be careful and anyway, prudence is A Good Thing in a banker, even if not currently fashionable. Days later, I am shown into a swanky drawing room in the town house offices of Noble Grossart, with polished floors and huge paintings and elegant, powder blue, damask settees (in my memory, they are chaise longues and if they weren't they ought to have been). I am not sure how this intellectual chemistry thingy is going to go when I'm perched on the edge, balancing a china cup in my hand and feeling much as a hoodied ned might if thrown into the middle of a Jane Austen scene.

The door opens. Sir Angus enters. Rather disappointingly, he is not wearing knickerbockers. I like a man in ruffles as long as it's not Laurence Llewelyn Bowen. Sir Angus sits opposite. He is a tall figure, quite patrician, but in the myriad of first impressions, there is one thing more compelling than everything else: he talks, almost without hesitation, for at least five minutes but without looking me in the eye once. This is a man in his seventies who runs his own bank…was vice chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland… is currently chairman of the Scottish Futures Trust… has steered the development of the National Galleries, the Scottish National Orchestra, and currently the National Museums…so this level of personal shyness is interesting. Talking to someone who is conversing with the middle distance presents its difficulties, but the complexity at which it hints is very appealing.

Anyway, the eyes gradually begin to flick towards his listener, and a distinct sense of dry humour, mischief even, emerges. Eventually, he smiles. "So," he says, "why are you picking on me?" Because he is one of those largely silent figures who is incredibly influential in Scottish business and artistic life. Part of the establishment in fact. But Sir Angus does not like that word. It is an interesting thing that 'the establishment' usually seems invisible to those within it, who often deny its very existence. It is only those on the outside who see it as an entity. Grossart prides himself on independence above everything else and has no affiliation to any political party. "The only establishment I am a member of is an establishment of one," he insists.

After polite chat, during which I focus both on not saying anything silly and not dropping the cup on the powder blue chaise longue, he gets his diary out. He approaches the interview with a level of commitment which I suspect he brings to most things. We could perhaps, he says thoughtfully, arrange to talk at his castle. That is where his soul is.

The 16th century castle must retain a figleaf of anonymity. Bought in the 1970s, it has been lovingly restored over many years. Grossart arranges for me to be picked up at the local station by Chris, a friendly, self employed joiner who works for him. Angus, he says, was a friend of his father's. Not SIR Angus then? He is not a man to stand on ceremony? Chris takes his eyes off the road. "We're a' Jock Tamson's bairns," he says and I smile. Later, I ask Grossart what his title means to him. "It doesn't matter at all," he says quietly. But then he says everything quietly. "He never shouts," says Chris. Ever. Though you can tell if things aren't right. Probably stems from his days as a lawyer. You are never going to get the better of someone if you are shouting."

Sir Angus is waiting in the grounds. He leads into the kitchen where the windows and doors are thrown open and the flies buzz in and out in the heat against a background of almost constant birdsong. The remarkable thing is the way this historic place has become a home. Varied impressions: the slightly fusty smell of thick stone walls and centuries of history mingling with a portrait of his only child, Fleur, and modern crockery. Later, climbing the circular stone staircases to see the rest, it becomes obvious how simply but stunningly beautiful this place is, how deep the interest in artistic detail rather than lavish ornamentation. There have been creative projects in Grossart's professional life, developing organisations, moving them on, but whatever true inner creativity he has been unleashed here, working with craftsmen.

But first, sitting at the kitchen table, I mention Sir Fred Goodwin's name. A perfect opportunity, one would think, for a St Peter type moment of denial and the crowing of cocks. But Grossart is instantly, intensely, loyal. Goodwin is "a good friend" and they are regularly in touch. "I think he's very sad at the way he was victimised. Shades of Kristallnacht." Not quite. No-one should be attacked but Kristellnacht persecuted Jews who had done nothing other than be Jewish, whereas with Goodwin there was the little matter of losing billions of pounds of other people's money while retaining complete financial security for himself.

"Clearly, he made a mistake," acknowledges Grossart, "as did most people in the financial world, most people in government, most people in regulatory organisations. There is no doubt he was going to be criticised but I think there is a deliberate attempt to polarise the criticism, to some extent as a distraction, a scapegoat kind of thing. He has been stigmatised. A lot of people, including those in government, were also involved in mistakes and they did not have bricks thrown through their windows."

Interestingly, in 2008, while Goodwin was being given the dubious accolade of world's worst banker by the Financial Times, Noble Grossart was notching up profits of 81 per cent. How? "The answer," says Grossart, "is that about three or four years ago, I could feel the ground trembling. I didn't know what was going to happen but I did think the wheel was spinning very fast and there was too much credit around. For businesses…for banks…for individuals and their credit cards. I was concerned about property being hyped up and I didn't think it would last. A lot of areas seemed to be making money rather quickly and easily and I thought, well, either you are an idiot Angus, or perhaps there is something wrong."

He followed his instincts. "We went very liquid with a number of things. We sold things which materially changed our exposure to a downturn. A lot of people when they write chairman's statements, conclude it by saying, ‘we are well positioned to take advantage of the upturn…' I could have written, ‘we are well positioned to take advantage of the downturn.'"

Some people said this recession signals the end of capitalism. Can it survive? "Oh yes," he insists. "This is a purge, as dramatic as anything we have seen since the 1940s. But periods of austerity often bring gain." What kind of gain? "Greater efficiency, particularly in the public sector. It seems a bit rich to me when millionaire businessmen criticise the public sector without acknowledging it has different criteria to private business. Anyway, the continual insistence that private enterprise runs better businesses ignores the fact that sometimes, they have created disasters out of publicly owned assets like the railways." But Sir Angus claims he is not driven by party political instincts. He supported a change of government at the recent election, but it was really a change of governance he wanted. "I thought there was going to be some very radical steps needed so I thought a new regime could be helpful."

If he has no firm political direction, what attitudes best describe him? "I would say ecumenical and continually evolving. Radical. Capitalist. Patriotic. Anti-bureaucratic." He smiles. "So far there is only one member of the Grossart party." Is he religious? He believes in God but is not driven by faith. But he definitely believes in decision making. Despite having due regard for consultation, he thinks too many committees hide behind discussion. "I always think these situations are a little like a sance. There's a puff of smoke from the middle of the table but no lips move and they say, ‘I've taken the decision'. No, you've reached a conclusion and the two should not be confused."

Grossart grew up in Carluke, one of three brothers. How did he arrive at the grandeur of this place? "You are implying I am grown up?" He laughs quietly to himself. "What a very loaded question!" His father was a tailor. The business had been inherited from Grossart's grandfather, a stern man who had married three times and who corresponded with Gladstone. "A big toad in a small puddle," says Grossart. But the war, and the following period of austerity, decimated the business and Grossart had to make his own way. A keen golfer, he captained Scotland's under 22 team and was a member of the British junior team. He considered turning professional. "But I wasn't really that good," he says. Instead, he went to university. He talks of education with a reverence that is really quite specific to his generation. "It was always seen as a great opportunity and a privilege. If you got to university, there were high expectations you would make something of it."

As soon as Grossart starts talking about education, the lifelong nature of it, the importance of curiosity, he somehow clicks into place, becomes rooted for me. It gives me a sudden, piercing yen to speak to my late father again. Most of us brought up in Scotland know at least one Scot who typifies that generation: the quiet, dignified reserve; the respect for learning; the kindly civility; the avoidance of "flashy" behaviour. I know Grossart, or at least his type.

He honed his business skills on a Sunday market confectionery stall. "It was stuff that had gone a little wonky in the making. Decapitated jelly babies or tablet that was either extraordinarily hard or slightly soft. It was like a business school class in getting off your backside and actually doing something."

He graduated first with an arts degree, but went on to also qualify in accountancy and law. Called to the Bar in 1963, he was teamed with Lord James MacKay, an inspirational figure to Grossart, who would later serve as Lord Chancellor. Grossart specialised in corporate tax law but left to establish Noble Grossart six years later. "I really enjoyed the Bar and was extremely happy there but after six or seven years I began to find it a little cloistered and it lacked independence." Leaving was, "a substantial risk," but one which was to pay off.

But he is known as much for artistic interests as business ventures and his wife, Gay, is an artist. Was it always going to be someone creative who captured his heart? "No, it was more through the dance floor than through art. At least, I like to think so. These things are never based on one point of affinity. They are based on general chemistry and common ground and also a good measure of healthy difference." I am told he is a devoted father to Fleur. He seems surprised but pleased by that. Fleur is in London and always invites him to stay when he is down.

Fleur, too, works in art and fashion. Does he remember the artistic experiences that first made an impact on him when he was young? "I think it was a fairly broad range of stimuli. I am a great believer in lighting the spark. I would go to auction rooms when I was a student and was quite interested in buying the catalogues. I think I had a great capacity to get quite excited about things and that remains. From time to time, I get into some big new area which will excite me. Then, hopefully, I move on. It's very important not to get stuck. A lot of people get rooted in some narrow area and finish up world expert in teapots…"

Grossart has been involved with every strand of Scottish arts, apart from ballet, and fought a variety of skirmishes, particularly when he wanted to open up one of the National Galleries of Scotland in Glasgow, a move opposed in Edinburgh. He was a vociferous supporter of the renovation of Kelvingrove, a museum that influenced him as a young man, and also campaigned vigorously to keep the John Murray archive in Scotland when he was chairman of the Lottery Heritage Fund. Perhaps that battle typifies his sense of ambition.

John Murray publishing had amassed thousands of letters dating back to the 18th century in one of the finest literary archives in the country. "The publisher at that time was very much the business adviser and emotional nanny," explains Grossart. "This correspondence was not just, ‘here's the proof, please send back'. It's really artists talking about their lives, who they are meeting, what their plans are, what their problems are. Amazing. There were wonderful letters from Byron, correspondence with Darwin, a really wonderful collection being offered to Scotland. It could have gone to the British library."

But the project needed 80 million and some argued it would be better spreading that money instead of investing in some crusty old archive. Grossart, they claimed, was being elitist. "I countered by saying you are the ones being discriminatory, because implied in your argument is the idea that the average guy will not be inspired by the best." Grossart won, narrowly.

As chairman of the National Museums he aspires to international status for Scottish collections. Where does he stand, then, on arguments about whether art is what people love or critics do? Jack Vettriano paintings, for example. Good anecdotes and social observation, says Grossart. "They are quite cute. Would I want to own one? No. Should they be shown? I would think yes, from time to time. He was significant in his time. I don't think he's the greatest of artists but the National Portrait Gallery is not all portraits by the greatest painters. I am pretty open minded."

You can tell Grossart is indeed open minded. He is not a man who seeks publicity but if he has no particular reason to say no, then he won't. He embraces experiences and has clearly been influenced by travel and his continuing brief of self education. He refuses to retire and has entered the quotation books for saying he'd rather die of exhaustion than boredom. Above the lintels of the castle, he has had Latin quotations from the poet Horace carved, urging a cool head in difficulties and restraint in prosperity. Wise man, Horace, he says. And if you wonder whether the merchant banker or arts lover is predominant in his personality, the answer may lie in another quotation, this time from Einstein. Wonderful, Grossart says, that it was a scientist who came up with this thought. "Knowledge is great. But imagination is greater."

&#149 This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, August 1, 2010