‘Create apprenticeships and I will pay for them’

FROM his immaculate modern meeting room on the top floor of Caledonia House, Willie Haughey has what would be a commanding view over Glasgow had this morning’s grim skies not deteriorated into a steady afternoon downpour.

Some landmarks of the old Gorbals just stand out in the murk to the immediate north of Caledonia Road, where the headquarters of City Refrigeration Holdings sit alongside the Southern Necropolis.

Parts of the district’s emerging new face – which includes modern housing – can also be picked out here and there amid the dank gloom.

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However, the buildings of the city’s centre just beyond on the other side of the Clyde are all but obliterated from view. It seems somehow appropriate, given Haughey’s mindset this afternoon.

The millionaire head of one of the country’s largest privately owned companies, Haughey is also a well-known and long-time Labour supporter. The combination of his political beliefs and his business dealings have aroused controversy on several occasions – none more notable than his alleged connections with shamed former City Council leader Stephen Purcell.

Today, Haughey makes it plain that he doesn’t want to talk politics, but policies are certainly at the forefront of his mind.

Speaking from the headquarters he established in the same neighbourhood where he grew up – one of the grimmest post-war slums in Europe – he vows to commit £2 million of his wealth in a bid to stave off a “lost generation” of young Scots.

“At the moment things are so critical, there is no time for politicising,” he declares. “We need a lot of cross-party solutions to a lot of issues, especially unemployment”.

Alarmed by last week’s government statistics which confirmed that youth unemployment had breached the one million barrier, Haughey will spend £2m over the next four years supporting 100 young people in apprenticeship posts.

He intends to create 25 of these at City Refrigeration – the company he began after serving his own apprenticeship as a 15-year-old school-leaver with no qualifications. He is also talking to other business and civic leaders about how to create the remaining 75 jobs, with recruitment to begin in the first quarter of next year.

“I really just want to emphasise that anyone who is in a position to help in any way should get in contact,” Haughey says. “It’s not just about money – if someone can create an apprenticeship, then I will pay for it.”

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With nearly 11,000 employees generating turnover that is expected to reach £420m this year, the 55-year-old boss of City Refrigeration remains “very much” hands-on in running the business that he and his wife Susan started in an office in their home in 1985.

The firm’s latest three-story headquarters, opened by Gordon Brown in 2009 when he was still Prime Minister, stretches over some 100,000sq ft and was built with expansion in mind.

But growth in Scotland is not his only goal. Haughey is off this week to Philadelphia to establish a foothold for the company in the US – all clear signs that he has no intention of letting the business slip into neutral.

“I am doing more air miles than I have ever done, but that’s how it is when times are difficult – you have got to work that bit harder. Probably I work about 60 hours a week, but I am in the fortunate position that most of that happens Monday to Friday, and not at the weekends,” he says.

Despite his international travel, Haughey continues to make time for what his personal website describes as “the community he loves, and the city he feels most at home in”. This involves charity work through his City Charitable Trust, as well as assisting the business sector through organisations such as the Entrepreneurial Exchange. Haughey is also a former director of Celtic Football Club and although he is no longer on the board, is still a supporter of the club and the wider game.

During difficult economic times, he says it is the responsibility of those who can to “step up to the plate” and help out with initiatives that could create jobs and growth for the economy. Earlier this month, he gave an initial 6,000sq ft in the west wing of Caledonia House to a new venture, Entrepreneurial Spark, a social enterprise providing facilities and advice free of charge to start-up companies.

The space had been earmarked for a City Refrigeration call centre which will now be located elsewhere within the building. If Entrepreneurial Spark proves a success, Haughey has committed up to a total of 12,000sq ft, plus IT and other infrastructure, to the venture.

“The greatest kick I get out of business is creating wealth, and knowing that all of these people can pick up a pay cheque every month to support themselves and their families because of what has been built here,” Haughey says.

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“We have to keep creating the next generation of wealth creators, especially now that we have found ourselves in this really sad state of affairs, especially with youth unemployment.”

Studies suggest exactly how tall an order this has proven to be. Earlier this year, a report from the University of Strathclyde warned of a “lost generation” of entrepreneurs in Scotland. The annual Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) also highlighted a greater disinterest among young Scots in starting their own firms than those in other parts of the UK.

Haughey, however, dismisses suggestions that Scots are somehow less likely to strike out on their own. Rather, it is more a sign of the times. “It’s not that there are fewer entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs walking around out there,” he says. “It’s just that there is nowhere for people who have good ideas to go to.”

Haughey points to recent advertisements taken out by Royal Bank of Scotland, which emphasise the taxpayer-owned institution’s willingness to work with small firms.

“Everybody I speak to tells me it is the opposite,” says Haughey. He says he would “love to have a meeting” with bank chiefs such as RBS boss Stephen Hester to tell them what is really happening on the ground. “I could bring at least 200 people who have negative stories about dealing with their banks.”

Despite his obvious frustration, the City Refrigeration boss says he understands the pressure the banks are under from conflicting demands. While politicians on one side are clamouring for them to release more cash, government regulators at various levels are on the other hand pushing through more stringent rules to ensure lenders are properly capitalised.

Though no one wants to see a repeat of the banking disaster of 2008, meeting both of these objectives has proven a difficult if not impossible quest.

Bearing that in mind, Haughey believes politicians should back off on regulation so that banks can address the immediate concern of kick-starting a stubbornly sluggish economy. “We need to stop putting all this pressure on the banks’ own liquidity, and get that liquidity out there into the market.”

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He adds that he would also like to see renewed support for the housing and construction sectors, where thousands could be put back to work “tomorrow”.

Though unwilling to be drawn on the question of Scotland’s independence, which the SNP has promised to put before voters before the end of this Parliamentary term, Haughey continues to throw his financial support behind Labour.

His links to the party saw him embroiled in the controversy of Purcell’s surprise resignation in the spring of 2010, with questions raised over the award of contracts by Glasgow City Council to City Refrigeration.

Haughey referred himself to watchdogs at Audit Scotland, and in the end, none of the allegations were proven. He nonetheless vowed he would never again seek government work, as he felt he had to either give up public contracts or cut off his financial support for Labour. “I said at that time that I would stop doing government work, and that is what I have done,” he states.

As for the debate swirling around the question of independence versus so-called “devolution max”, Haughey brushes it aside as though swiping away an annoying fly. The focus for all politicians, he says, must at the moment be on getting people back to work.

“I am not interested in the question or the debate [over independence]. My focus right now is what can be done for youth unemployment. For me, that is what politicians should be doing as well. I am not sitting on the fence. That is exactly how I feel.”