Scotland’s economy: Lena Wilson: Global vision required
THREE years on from the great financial crash, Scotland’s economy remains in a poor state of health, with growth still close to zero. Economists are warning of a “lost decade”, as the country bumps along the bottom for the foreseeable future, thanks to a combination of low business investment and shrinking consumer confidence.
A self-fulfilling vicious circle is in danger of being locked – unless the country manages to find a way of shrugging off the doom and gloom. In a series of interviews, starting today, Eddie Barnes talks to key figures in Scotland about how best to get the country moving again – and the steps we must take if the country is to regain its foothold in the global marketplace.
Lena Wilson: My obsession is all about creating a global ambition and a global mindset
LENA Wilson is, to put it mildly, a little impatient when it comes to the job of revving up the Scottish economy. “I wish I had more hours to walk through the streets with a sandwich board to talk to people about the opportunities there are out there,” she notes. It’s not what you’d find in the standard manual on “How to Be an Enterprise Boss”. But then the Scottish Enterprise chief executive is perhaps not cut from the normal cloth.
The sandwich board analogy is very appropriate. Like a preacher carrying a religious message on the streets, there is something of the evangelist about Dr Wilson. Her chosen religion is enterprise. For 20 years, both at Scottish Enterprise and, for two years, at the World Bank, where she experienced some hair-raising moments in South America and Africa, she has been spreading the gospel of trade. And she does it, she acknowledges, relentlessly.
This is not the kind of person, you feel, who enjoys a morning lie-in; her staff, she admits, are driven crazy by the number of items she tries to pack into her diary. So, raising with her the widely held view that somehow Scotland and the UK are doomed to suffer a decade long economic torpor thanks to the financial crash is, well, heresy. There is a danger, she warns, that with the country still to recover from the post-crunch slump, a fatalism sets in that decline is inevitable. This is an impression which the passionate and committed Dr Wilson is eager to counter.
She is talking of the situation facing Scotland’s young people and figures showing that as many as 100,000 18-24 year olds are currently unemployed. “These aren’t young kids who are born in difficult circumstances, these are everybody’s kids; I’m meeting kids with firsts in philosophy who have been unemployed for two years. I guess you could say it isn’t Scottish Enterprise’s job to fix youth unemployment. I just don’t find that acceptable. You are sitting back and there is a big waste of talent in the economy.”
Forget altruistic appeals to firms to take on a casualty of the unemployment crisis, she says – that would only send them all to the wall, she notes. Better to boost demand for youngsters by showing firms they need fresh talent in their firms in order to grow. This, in a nutshell, is how she sees her job. “My whole approach is a relentless and bold and ambitious focus on opportunities… and the overwhelming thing about how you transform Scotland – and that is my obsession – is all about creating a global ambition and a global mindset.”
Or, in layman’s terms, trading more on the worldwide stage, and ramping up the country’s export base. She is recently returned from a trade mission to Brazil where, she notes, a growing middle class is now eagerly buying, eating and drinking high value European goods. With a few hours to kill before her flight left from Sao Paolo, she decided to research the local supermarket. “The tourist in me was denied and I decided to go down to the local supermarket to see if there were any Scottish goods. There weren’t any. Actually, there weren’t many foreign goods at all. But what does that new middle class want to spend their money on? It is luxury items, things that can show their wealth, so all that amazing Scottish food stuff.” Figures last week bore her out: whisky exports to Brazil last year rocketed by 50 per cent.
She wants Scottish Enterprise to facilitate this drive. She aims to open two new offices in Brazil soon. And while the boom years perhaps saw businesses able to live off the fat of the land, in these more stringent times, she says she finds her services in greater demand than ever. “I find I am getting to the point where I wonder sometimes if I am being set up, where I get approaches from people who say ‘do more, do even more of it’.”
“I can’t stress enough. Have I said ‘global’ so far? There are massive opportunities out there. Look at something like Brewdog (the independent brewer based in Fraserburgh). I think something like 80 per cent of their turnover is now accounted for by overseas sales.”
Blocks to this growth should be dealt with firmly, she argues. Both UK and Scottish ministers have planning restraints and regulations in their sights. Good, she says. “When I started in the workplace, people weren’t so concerned about things. You think about how we treat our kids these days – we wrap them up in cotton wool.” Has the pendulum swung too far in the health and safety culture? “I think pendulums have to be constantly recalibrated,” she says.
The good news, she argues, is that these pro-enterprise views are now held widely right across Scotland’s public field. She remembers a few years back. “You’d all say the economy is the number one objective. Well, when you looked at what everyone was doing, it didn’t always look like that. There has been an absolute sea change in the last few years.” Leadership from the top helps – she is full of praise for finance secretary John Swinney who, without much public fuss, has firmly directed all public bodies onto the priority of economic development. A good example, she says, came recently with salmon. A massive disease in Chile, one of Scotland’s biggest salmon competitors, had wiped out much of their stock. There was therefore a huge chance to upscale salmon production and clean up. The problem was planning. “We went straight to John Swinney and within a matter of weeks we had a salmon planning summit where he had every single head of planning for every local authority and salmon federation and salmon producers and made it clear about the intention.” The planning issue got cleared.
“We want to protect heritage, wildlife and all of that, but to me planning should have a mind set which is about developing the economy,” she notes.
This relentless focus paid dividends just a few days earlier in the key focus for Scottish Enterprise – the renewables sector. There was, she says, “huge relief” when wind turbine manufacturer Gamesa signed up to Scotland rather than Hartlepool. She feels the success or failure of these deals physically, she says. “I was at a dinner on Thursday night [with an investor] and it is a bit of a blur because I was too nervous to enjoy it. That is the kind of focus we have. It’s like we’re a company trying to win a big sale.”
Her zeal is impressive and infectious. She thinks she is part of a new generation of Scottish leaders who grew up with frustrations about the lack of progress on the economy in Scotland, and who now wants to reverse that.
“I came into this post three years ago. And there’s been a cadre of other appointments in the last few years. It’s a group of people who just say, look, bugger who gets credit, and the fiefdoms and all the rest of it,” she says.
“Of course, we want to secure the best possible budget for our organisations and all the rest of it, but…it doesn’t matter who has got the idea.” She has, for example, decided to share the intelligence gathered by SE’s 200 staff around the world for other agencies to share. “I said let’s make that available to everybody. Let’s open that up.”
This is a culture, she says, that has to embrace a bit of risk-taking. Show a bit of daring. “I could go to jail for stuff if I am too cavalier but we have to embrace risk. We have to take risks to really transform.”
The frustration, for someone so driven, is when the Gospel doesn’t get heard. She makes it clear that the best place for a youngster to be right now is in technology or engineering. Companies have told her, she says, that they rate Scotland’s engineering graduates as the best in the world. “If you graduate with an engineering degree just now, you can name your job and it is money we would all work for,” she says.
“I’m not saying engineering is the answer to everything, but in the next five to ten years, if you are in that pipeline and coming out you are really almost 100 per cent guaranteed a job. These kids are starting on salaries in the high 20ks. Excellent salaries which then go up very quickly.”
And yet, for too many middle-class families, it is still all about “accountancy, medicine or law”. She goes on: “There’s definitely something about what parents say to their children. Do they understand the economy? Do they understand what is happening? I have huge frustrations about that.”
As regards the constitutional battle raging in Edinburgh, she says that, at present, it is not having much impact on business one way or another. The next two years promise to be a diplomatic tightrope walk for the agencies like Scottish Enterprise which must stay decidedly neutral. “For a company like Samsung, the constitutional question makes no difference to them whatsoever,” she says. “I would say, broadly speaking, I don’t see any impact on our pipeline for investment and that’s not a political statement. It’s the truth.”
It’s a big salary she’s on – with little change from £200,000. There may have been a time when SE might have felt squeamish about that. Dr Wilson simply states: “If we were a PLC, I’d be buying more shares in us right now.” She means that for Scotland as well. The business plan at SE is to create 19,000 new jobs and £7-9bn of cash.
“If we didn’t exist that would be lost to the Scottish economy. We don’t create them of course, we facilitate it, we agitate for it. I think that is pretty good.” As sermons go, you have to say it’s pretty convincing.
• Lena Wilson is chief executive of Scottish Enterprise
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