Monday interview: Robert Ross, MD of Alexander Ross Holdings

Robert Ross with some of his firm's soaps. The company was started by his great-grandfather. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Robert Ross with some of his firm's soaps. The company was started by his great-grandfather. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Background in foreign exchange, maths and economics now put to use at Stirlingshire cleaning products supplier

There are a relatively narrow number of things to master in the world of foreign exchange, but successful traders must grasp them completely. Depth of knowledge in a limited field is the main element that separates those at the top from the rest.

For 13 years, that’s what Robert Ross did, eventually making it to global head of G10 currencies at HSBC in London. But he knew he would eventually come back to Stirlingshire, where he is now the fourth generation to run family-owned Alexander Ross Holdings.

“I have always liked history,” he says. “The history of the family business, and taking that on was something that I never questioned. I always knew I was going to take it on, but I wanted to go and do something else first.”

Predisposed to mathematics and business from an early age, he found a natural home in the City after studying economics at Stirling and Strathclyde universities. Between working days typically lasting ten hours or more, he also succeeded for many years in finding time to pursue his passion for circuit racing, though that eventually came to an end.

“I actually fell asleep in the pit lane in Portugal, with all of these other cars speeding by,” Ross recalls. “I just remember thinking to myself, ‘I am not at peak performance’.”

His final three years in the City were similarly notable, covering the onset of the global financial crisis that sent trading rooms into seemingly non-stop pandemonium. It was time to leave, and after a six-month break to go skiing around the world, he returned in May 2011 to the Ochil Hills and the company set up by his great-grandfather.

With a group turnover of £15.4 million, Alexander Ross Holdings includes three business – cleaning products supplier Unico, set up by the original Robert Ross in 1923; Scottish Fine Soaps, launched in 1974; and Montague Lloyd, a subsidiary that specialises in luxury hotel toiletries.

So there was plenty to be getting on with, but after so many supercharged years, surely it was nothing Ross couldn’t handle? Well, yes – and no.

“There are so many different things that you have to look at,” he says. “In the morning it might be sorting out logistics, and in the afternoon it could be fashions in packaging, or you might be in the lab with the chemists or in the finance department, or sorting out IT issues or a problem on the production line.

“I did struggle a little bit at first. I went from knowing my subject 100 per cent to being a little bit lost with the mass of variety.”

The larger Unico division provides janitorial and catering supplies within a conventional geography, but Scottish Fine Soaps has evolved along different lines during its four decades of trading. It generates less than 20 per cent of its turnover – nearly £6m last year – from sales within the UK.

Stocked throughout the US by the TJ Maxx retail chain, Scottish Fine Soaps are additionally exported to more than 30 other countries. In its home market, the brand is stocked mainly by smaller gift shops, and is also available online.

Collections include the company’s most popular Au Lait, which is made from real milk, and the newly relaunched Sea Kelp line rich in minerals and coastal fragrances. Two further collections – “Larch & Lavender” and “Pink Grapefruit & Argan Oil” – were added earlier this year, and more are in the pipeline.

Ross believes all could gain a significant following among UK consumers, particularly after last year’s major rebranding to contemporary premium packaging. The enticing look invites shoppers to pick up a product and have a sniff – a key component in securing sales.

The next step, Ross says, is to make these products more readily available. While online theoretically covers the whole of the UK, it can’t replicate the “sniff factor”. Small shops have been a good mainstay in this regard, but they are often unable to carry the full range of products.

The company has appointed French-born Stephanie Shaw, formerly of luxury goods house LVMH, to drive listings within the UK. One of her main jobs will be to get Scottish Fine Soaps stocked within department stores and other national retailers. This could then unlock the possibility of advertising.

“We can’t really do anything like that right now,” Ross said. “In an advertising campaign you have to tell people where they can go to buy your product, and nationally, we don’t have anywhere we can point them to.”

Ross believes that tackling these issues could double sales of the firm’s bath and beauty products within the next five years.

30-second CV

Born: Falkirk, 1971

Raised: Falkirk

Education: Larbert High School, University of Stirling (Economics), University of Strathclyde (Masters in Economics)

First job: Working for my dad as a student at Unico

Can’t live without: Mountain bikes and mu skis

Kindle or book: A book – I use both, but if a book is there, it reminds me to go back to it and keep reading, but I don’t always remember to go back and open up an app

Favourite city: London

Favourite mode of transport: The train or the car – I don’t like buses

What makes you angry: Very few things. I am not an angry person. If I get angry it is probably because I haven’t had enough sleep

What inspiress you: People who do lots and lots of different things in their life

Best thing about your job: It’s the variety