Erikka Askeland business comment: Stay-at-home businesses must widen their horizons

APPARENTLY the Taiwanese love Scotch whisky. Can't get enough of the stuff. Nor are they put off by the expense. Ken Grier, Edrington's head of malts, is regularly there and his efforts pay off. Their bottle, the Macallan, is a top seller on the island – which is why Whyte and Mackay are getting in on the act by pairing up with Burn Stewart Distillers (BSD) to distribute their drinks there too.

But take away Scotland's leading export and the record for trading abroad is "dismal", according to Dougie Adams, the senior economic adviser to the Ernst & Young Scottish Item Club.

In the past ten years, Scottish exports have actually fallen by nearly a third.

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It makes you wonder then what Scottish Development International and the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI) have been doing all this time. SDI funds and staffs offices abroad and brokers business meetings with high-powered global Scotphiles. And SCDI has been organising trade missions since the 1960s. Yet, manufactured exports here have declined markedly while global trade volumes have doubled. SDI claims its efforts boost exports by 58 million a year. But it is just not enough.

Is it that Scots, burdened with a folk memory of the clearances and the Diaspora, just fancy staying home? Or maybe it is a lack of ambition, settling on "exporting" to that other country, England. We have all met Scots who haven't even travelled to Edinburgh or Glasgow. We need to get out more.

The big money is on who will leave next

One of the reasons often cited for the vast salaries handed out to chief executives is that they live or die by their decisions. Mess up and the top dog gets turfed out by the board – albeit these days the axe tends to be tempered with a hefty severance package no matter how big the mess he (because it is, still, almost always a "he") leaves behind him.

Tony Hayward, chief executive of BP, probably has as long as it takes to stop the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico and see adequate clean-up measures put in place before he goes. If the shareholders will still have him it is unlikely the American people and its President will.

The case against Tidjane Thiam, chief executive of the Prudential, is that he tried to take a bite of something too big to chew and too expensive to swallow. While there was the usual gang of gung-ho, fee-addled City boys cheering the $35 billion deal to buy up AIG's Asian business, there were many who saw in Thiam's bid a disaster to rival RBS's takeover of ABN Amro. And we know what happened to the chief executive behind that deal.

Thiam is still hanging on, and the urbane French-speaking executive has so far delivered an insouciant shrug to his would-be assassins. It could be argued that he was recruited to make bold, acquisitive moves and this one got away because the markets were wrong for raising squillions to fund the deal and the timescale was just too fast. And sure it cost him 450m to walk away, but these days that kind of cash wouldn't even bail out a small bank. Even the embarrassing mess with the FSA, who initially refused to sign off the prospectus – which arguably Thiam really deserved a kicking for – could be excused if the regulator was proven to be too twitchy. After all, the FSA was too timid before the banking crisis and has since been like a hall monitor bolstered by a new sense of authority and a clipboard.

In Scotland, the case against VisitScotland chief executive Philip Riddle is harder to make. Arguably there is no mess except the one facing the tourism industry after the recession and volcanic ash took its toll, and that can hardly be blamed on Riddle.

Another reason why chiefs get the big money is they aren't supposed to stay on that long. Sir Bill Gammell of Cairn Energy is one of the longer-serving chief executives on the FTSE 100 but he's an unusual case and his shareholders are grateful and loyal. Many just stay for a few years. Riddle was in the job for nine years, and his new chairman seems to be itching for a change. Sometimes you just have to move on.