Business interview: Nick Kuenssberg

CRISPLY casual in a checked button-down shirt and light blue denims, Nick Kuenssberg is at ease in the cluttered but comfortable office of his Kelvinside home.

Sunlight through the bay window illuminates his smartly-trimmed mop of silver hair as the veteran Scots businessman props one foot upon a hand-crafted Peruvian table acquired in the early days of his career.

Despite his relaxed demeanour, Kuenssberg’s working days show no sign of coming to an end. The former textiles boss, who celebrated his 70th birthday just a few months past, holds down a portfolio of jobs which include a new appointment that is bringing his career full circle.

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As a young manager working in late-1960s Peru, Kuenssberg devised legal means to circumvent government reforms that would have rapidly given an “industrial community” of workers a 50 per cent stake in the local subsidiary of his company, the Scottish textiles group then known as Coats Patons.

Those reforms had a disastrous effect on the country’s industrial sector, and were repealed some eight years later. By that time, however, the Peruvian subsidiary of Coats was listed on the stock exchange in Lima, giving it partial protection from the worst of the fall-out.

It seems somewhat odd, then, that Kuenssberg is today chairing the Scott & Fyfe textiles business in Tayside, which he recently led into employee ownership. He is, however, quick to point out that this is nothing like the Communist structures of old.

“This is not a co-op,” he explains. “It remains a capitalist thing, with shareholders and managers.”

Even so, he acknowledges that the banking crisis and subsequent economic downturn have substantially altered the business landscape, creating space for new types of enterprises while forcing out the worst excesses of capitalism.

This shift – and his experiences at Scott & Fyfe – gave him an open mind when approached last year about the possibility of chairing Social Investment Scotland (SIS), the government-backed body in charge of lending cash to charities. Having taken up the post last month, Kuenssberg is now bringing in new board members to develop a five-year strategy that stretches beyond SIS’s current remit.

“We are looking at scaling up, we are looking at partnership, and we are looking at models that work well, and how they can be replicated,” Kuenssberg says. As the new boardroom recruits have not yet been confirmed, the specifics of the five-year plan will not be formalised until April or May.

However, the underlying theme centres on SIS’s potential as a facilitator, sharing best practice and developing new forms of funding across the spectrum of Scotland’s charities, community organisations and social enterprises.

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According to SIS chief executive Alastair Davis, Kuenssberg’s corporate experience will be a significant factor in driving forward these changes.

During his 27 years with Coats, Kuenssberg held various management roles in a number of international markets in Europe and South America – a task made easier by his knowledge of Spanish, German and French.

He later returned to Scotland as Coats’ overseas finance director, and also took on responsibility for the company’s non-textile operations. He joined the main board just before the merger that created Coats Viyella in 1986, but faced with a transfer to London in 1991, he decided the time had come to resign from the company where he had worked for nearly 30 years.

After travelling extensively for many years, he and wife Sally wanted to give their three children a base in the Scottish home they had first purchased back in 1978.

Eldest David, now a senior civil servant, was aged seven upon their return to Glasgow, while sisters Joanna and Laura – the former now a diplomat, the latter business editor at ITV News – were aged five and two.

“We always wanted to be back home when the kids’ education started,” Kuenssberg explains. It was the right decision for the family, but Kuenssberg’s next professional move would turn into one of the most difficult episodes of his career.

Initially in charge of the UK-based business of Dawson International, then-owner of the Pringle knitwear brand, Kuenssberg was promoted to group managing director following his predecessor’s ill-fated expansion into the US. Kuenssberg held the top post for less than a year before he and chairman Ronald Miller were forced to resign in March 1995.

“Dawson was a personal black cloud,” he admits. “I had three great years there, and then one awful year.”

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At the time, he was also serving as a non-executive director at both Standard Life and ScottishPower. He offered resignations to both in the wake of his departure from Dawson, but neither accepted his offer to stand down.

Assessing his options, Kuenssberg decided to pursue a so-called “portfolio career”, which led to directors’ posts in both business and the public sector.

He has held positions at organisations such as the Scottish Legal Aid Board, the Glasgow School of Art, QAA Scotland, IoD Scotland and Scotland IS.

He is also a business angel of long standing through both the Braveheart investment group and the newly-established Gabriel Investments, which last month completed its fourth deal in less than a year of operation.

About the only sector he swore he would avoid was textiles.

“It wasn’t just what happened at Dawson,” he says, “it was also Coats. I moved literally hundreds of looms from the UK to India, because that was where the industry was headed.”

However, he changed his mind after coming across Scott & Fyfe, which among other things had a £6million cash pile that gave some breathing room to implement necessary changes. Overseas operations were shut down, Scottish production consolidated onto a single site, and a new innovation programme was launched in conjunction with the Glasgow School of Art. And, of course, the employees took over the family-owned firm.

“It made the best sense,” Kuenssberg says. “There was no one in the family interested in taking over the business, but they were keen to leave something in Tayport. They wanted not a monument, but an ongoing business.”

Kuenssberg says it has only been in recent weeks that he realised there was “a story” running through the course of his career which he describes as “a personal route to post-modern capitalism”.

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And the best way to describe this postmodernist approach – some kind of blend of capitalism and socialism? “I’m not sure,” he says, tapping a finger thoughtfully against his chin. “Maybe ‘community-ism’?

“But really, does it matter what one calls it? It’s just people working together for a common good.”