Big Interview: David Watt, chief of the Institute of Directors in Scotland

For the first time in more than a dozen years at the helm of the Institute of Directors (IoD) in Scotland, David Watt has a dedicated desk in his own office, rather than sharing space or working from home. His digs are part of the group's newly opened flagship premises in Edinburgh, just a few doors down from the First Minister's residence on the north side of Charlotte Square.

David Watt at the IoD Scotlands new office at 10 Charlotte Square. Scotland is a very dynamic place at the moment and Edinburgh is at the centre of that, he says. Picture: Neil Hanna
David Watt at the IoD Scotlands new office at 10 Charlotte Square. Scotland is a very dynamic place at the moment and Edinburgh is at the centre of that, he says. Picture: Neil Hanna

It’s an appropriate setting for a man who enjoys “the non-party aspects of politics”, and has taken a keen interest in government and current affairs since childhood. But the neighbours needn’t worry – Watt has no intention of wearing thin his welcome.

“I don’t rush along to the First Minister’s house for coffee, but you are absolutely right that Edinburgh has become a buzzing political hub,” he says. “Scotland is a very dynamic place at the moment and Edinburgh is at the centre of that.”

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Formerly the headquarters of Sir David Murray’s conglomerate of business interests, the Georgian office building has been vacant since the departure of Murray International Holdings (MIH) in 2014. Now overhauled with 3,000sq ft over two floors, the IoD aims to create a hub of business leadership for its members across Scotland and the rest of the UK.

The move from shared facilities at the Royal Scots Club some 15 minutes to the east at Abercromby Place has been several years in the making, and not by chance coincides with a resurgence in IoD Scotland’s fortunes.

After hitting a low of about 1,500 members as the recession took hold in 2009, Watt says institute membership has been growing at a consistent pace for the past five years. The number of those willing to stump up the £400 annual fee rose by 5 per cent last year to about 1,870, with this year’s growth target pegged at a rise of 10 per cent.

“We had actively been on the search for about three years and we looked at about 30 other potential sites,” Watt says. “We certainly wanted to have a building that had some impact and something that is better than where we were previously.

“This is a better facility for members and it is a better location as well. This area is quite a centre for finance and for other businesses.”

Benefits include closer proximity to the train station for members visiting the capital, plus a setting that is more commercial and less social. As for cachet, the new address is among the capital’s most distinctive.

“Obviously it is one of the more prestigious properties in Edinburgh, so clearly this has been a significant commitment not just by IoD Scotland but the IoD at UK level as well,” says Watt, side-stepping the specifics on the financial outlay for the ten-year lease on the building.

“It is a members’ facility and it should create a buzz among our membership. I am hoping it will become a real business leadership hub not just for Scotland but for members throughout the UK.”

IoD Scotland’s staff of four and a half full-time equivalents moved in three weeks ago, but the doors officially opened to members at the start of last week. Some have already held training courses at the facility, which would not have been possible at the previous premises.

Members can take advantage of the lounge, a hot desk workroom and two meeting rooms for between two and 12 people with views of Edinburgh Castle and Charlotte Square Gardens. A larger boardroom for up to 16 people is also available for hire, while the “Director Development” room can seat up to 50 people for workshops and seminars.

IoD Scotland will also use this space to host some of its own professional development courses, which Watt says are in demand as never before.

“The self-improvement bit is a key point for people who are joining the IoD,” he explains. “They want to be sure their corporate governance is sound, and that they are doing the right things.”

He would like a similarly practical approach to economic development at a political level, but fears that the seemingly endless stream of balloting is deflecting focus away from the core tasks at hand.

“I would love to see a year in Scotland that does not have an election or referendum,” he says, noting that this year’s votes on the Scottish Parliament and a potential UK exit from the EU will be followed by local council hustings in 2017. “It is political diversion away from actually getting things done.”

A studied amateur on the interplay of politics and economics, as a child Watt preferred listening to the issues of the day on talk radio, rather than tuning into music. He was also heavily involved in sport and qualified as a physical education teacher at Jordanhill College in Glasgow before returning to his home town of Kilmarnock as a PE instructor.

He later took up a post within the sport and leisure department of Fife Council, where he lives today, but left the public sector in 1993 to set up his consultancy, Organising Leisure.

During this period he first came into contact with the IoD, joining the group’s local Fife and Tayside committee as an unpaid member of the institute’s voluntary network.

His sporting pursuits include golfing off a handicap of 15 at his home course at Duke’s St Andrews, as well as following Edinburgh Rugby and the national team. Meanwhile, he also maintains the balancing act of envoy between the realms of business and politics.

The IoD has adopted a position of “concerned neutrality” in the Brexit debate, and says its primary job is to educate members on the pros and cons by giving them as many facts as possible. In a poll of its UK members earlier this month, 63 per cent backed Remain, up from 60 per cent in February, while 29 per cent supported Leave, down from 31 per cent.

Watt says Scottish members of the IoD are slightly more enthusiastic about remaining in Europe, but he encourages all to vote regardless of their persuasion because of the “huge impact” this decision will have. With the effects to be felt by future generations, getting data out to the public is “absolutely vital”.

“People are looking for certainty of information that is not there, but there are facts and figures about who we export to, how much we export to them, age demographics of the population and so forth,” he says. “This can at least help inform the decision.”

He notes some of the similarities between the independence referendum of 2014 and this year’s Brexit decision, as well as suggestions that a UK vote to leave might trigger a second independence referendum.

Other ironies – such as the stance of former London mayor Boris Johnson on these two interlinked issues – give Watt cause to chuckle.

“He said Scotland could not survive outside the UK, but it seems he believes UK businesses can survive outside Europe,” Watt says. “It is quite an interesting contradiction, you would think, and it’s amusing to see how some people have changed hats.”

As for the newly elected Scottish Government, Watt says the creation of a dedicated secretary for the economy is a strong and positive move, as is the continued commitment to universal broadband coverage. Once the decision on Brexit is made, it’s time for these and other critical issues to come to the fore.

“I’ve said it many times before – the constitutional debate, the referendum debate, the political debate – it has all become too dominant,” Watt says. “We must all now focus on growing the economy, no matter what your political persuasion.”