‘Some of it I find frustrating, some of it I find interesting. It’s been a bit of an education but it hasn’t left me scarred – at least not yet’

Have your say

Bob Keiller may be well known for his current role as Scottish Enterprise chairman and for his prior career in the oil and gas industry, latterly leading energy services heavyweight Wood Group as chief executive.

But many are also familiar with his love of painting, and he had originally pondered a career creating album covers for heavy metal bands, only to instead study engineering after being warned by a friend that few people make a decent living from art.

He still picks up a brush but his wife refuses to let him hang his works around their home. “She thinks they’re abstract expressionism – and I’m thinking ‘no, that’s a still life’,” he says wryly.

Keiller spent about three decades in oil and gas, stepping down from Aberdeen-based Wood Group at the end of 2015 with a “golden parachute” of nearly £500,000 and having picked up a string of awards recognising his contribution to the industry and as a business leader in Scotland.

He had been responsible for the creation of energy services company PSN by manufacturing a $280 million (£200m) management buyout from Halliburton in 2006 and he completed the $1 billion sale of PSN to rival Wood Group in 2011.

Awarded a CBE last year, he is now a judge on the Virgin StartUp 10: Scotland competition, part of Virgin Group’s not-for-profit entrepreneurial hub, which distributes government-backed start-up loans of £500 to £25,000.

There is, however, no cash reward in this contest – instead it offers “start-up can’t buy” prizes such as mentoring from the judges, who include Leah Hutcheon, of online booking software firm Appointedd, and Cally Russell, who is behind shopping app Mallzee.

Keiller says: “They’re great examples of people that have been there and done it – and they’ll be able to spot even better than I can the people that have got the glint in their eye and the fire in their belly that’s going to make all the difference.”

The ten finalists will be revealed next month and Keiller says that if the competition and other similar ventures help create even one or two companies that can create high-quality employment opportunities for young people, Scotland would really benefit.

Edinburgh in particular is proving a hotbed of start-up talent, ranking highly in many a survey of the best places in the UK to get a business off the ground, while Bank of Scotland in December reported Scots’ increasing interest in pursuing an entrepreneurial path, with 14 per cent of Scots looking to start up a company on their own or with a partner – an increase of 17 per cent over the preceding year.

However, the Scottish economy is lagging well behind the UK’s, in the third quarter of 2017 growing by 0.6 per cent on an annual basis, as opposed to 1.7 per cent for the UK as a whole.

Keiller highlights the need to maximise entrepreneurial capacity and opportunity for people in Scotland, “hopefully to the point where we’re able to offer things that are not necessarily available in other parts of the world, and can attract even more people to come here and do great work”.

The relatively new entrepreneur-focused phase of his career has also has given him personally the choice to say no as much as yes. “I’m deliberately trying not get dragged into doing too many things like non-exec directorships… I’d rather have the diary filled with things where I think I can help other people rather than doing it because I’m a hired hand.”

But he has plenty to occupy his time. Last year he was named one of the founding entrepreneurs at the University of Strathclyde’s business school and last month he launched Scale-up Scotland, a programme designed to address the business scale-up challenge north of the Border. This comes amid his desire for longer-term incubation of early-stage companies, which he is also channelling into his work with Opportunity North East, the private sector’s response (backed by Wood Group oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood) to the long-term economic challenges facing the Scottish region.

Such struggles have been driven by the oil and gas sector’s retrenchment, and Keiller acknowledges that the industry could be more efficient in some areas.

The Aberdeen resident praises initiatives such as the Oil & Gas Technology Centre, which recently said that in its first year it co-invested £37m in more than 70 projects to help drive new technology that could boost the future of the UK North Sea.

Keiller says: “The opportunities are there for people to make a difference now – a few years ago it would have been difficult for somebody to come in fresh from outside the industry and try and persuade somebody to give them a test bed for a new device.”

He also notes pivotal progress in the use of data and suggests the door is open for innovation and entrepreneurship “in a way we’ve never seen before”.

His erstwhile employer Wood Group has been undergoing major changes itself, snapping up Amec Foster Wheeler in a deal announced in March that valued the engineering group at more than £2.2bn.

Accendo Markets’ head of research Mike van Dulken at the time described the deal as “logical consolidation” enabling those in the energy sector to “better weather any future storms”.

That is a sentiment echoed by Keiller, who sees the deal as a “natural” move in markets subject to shrinkage and pressures.

“Consolidation to achieve greater efficiencies across an international footprint is an absolutely logical thing to happen, and I think the merger of these two companies makes sense across so many different parts of the globe.”

Keiller moved into the oil and gas sector after working for Hewlett-Packard, later becoming a chartered engineer. But it dawned on him that he wasn’t the best or most passionate engineer, preferring instead to deal with people and projects “and trying to make things happen”.

He made the move into leading and managing teams and away from the hands-on technical side of engineering “pretty quickly”, working on both the operator and services contractor sides of the industry.

And his relatively recent move to the public sector has required some adjustment, he admits.

“The machine moves differently from some aspects of private sector, and I understand at times why it has to do that, because at the end of the day you’re dealing with things like taxpayers’ money so you can’t be seen to be fast and loose in any sense. There have to be proper processes in place.

“Some of it I find frustrating, some of it I find really interesting. It’s been a bit of an education but it hasn’t left me scarred – at least not yet,” he adds, describing work with politicians and the civil service as “interesting”.

There has been controversy since our conversation regarding the chief executive role at Scottish Enterprise, with the Conservatives warning this month that Scotland’s main economic development agency could be “rudderless” for a year.

Ministers were accused of delaying the hunt for a successor to Lena Wilson, who announced in July that she was stepping down after about eight years, with Paul Lewis now in the post on an interim basis. The closing date for applications was 5 January, and economy secretary Keith Brown said it could take six months to find her successor.

Scottish Enterprise, however, insisted that the organisation went “from strength to strength” under Wilson’s leadership and its success continues under Lewis, with the search for a successor “well under way”. It emerged last month that the quango invested nearly £100m over the past decade on firms that subsequently ceased trading, prompting accusations of having seriously dented the public purse.

But, all told, Keiller praises the many hard-working, motivated people he says he has encountered in the public sector, adding: “There’s a common theme that people in Scotland recognise, that if we were just more joined-up in many areas, we could actually do more.”

Hopefully, driving such growth will be the emerging generation of entrepreneurs, with Keiller stressing that he has learnt first-hand how crucial management and people skills are. “If you don’t have the soft skills there to be able to attract and retain the right people in the business, to be able to persuade customers to give you a chance, and to be able to persuade funders to basically invest their hard-earned cash in your direction, then it’s a much more difficult game.”