Frank Blin once warned that if the number of Scottish firms quoted on the stock market continued to dwindle, the annual awards dinner to celebrate their achievements would one day be held in a telephone box.
His quip raised a laugh among the black tie audience gathered at the Glasgow Hilton, but Blin was only half-joking. He felt their diminishing number was a cause for concern.
The Plc Awards are still with us, but concerns over company growth and ambition remain. Blin, Scotland’s senior accountant and one of its longest-serving business advisers, was delighted that his firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers, helped create the annual event but each time he took to the rostrum to welcome guests he never flinched from spelling out the challenges facing those otherwise hoping to pick up a gong or two.
Now 57, he announced at the weekend that he plans to retire from PwC, but not from business or public life.
He doesn’t see himself as a cheerleader for Scotland but he does believe he can help make a difference. “It is about leadership. If you want to be respected you have to have some views and they have to be credible. But you have to avoid soundbites. You need propositions,” he says.
“I am passionate about Scotland, I like the way there are close connections and an ability to get things done.”
Those connections have put him at the centre of corporate activity, brought him into contact with some of the biggest names in business, and drawn him into the heart of government through his appointment to key lobby groups and other influential bodies.
He sat on the Scottish Enterprise board alongside Fred Hallsworth, former Scottish head of Arthur Andersen, and Jack Perry, the agency’s chief executive and a former partner at Ernst & Young. But even with such accounting talent to draw on SE could not deflect criticism over its budgeting processes.
Was it frustrating? “Utterly,” says Blin. “The public sector needs more freedom to operate and it required a lot of effort to get agreement on courses of action.”
SE, says Blin, was a curate’s egg, good in parts. He thought it would benefit from greater scope to invest in the star companies rather than those that were politically attractive.
He won’t be drawn on his plans once he steps down as PwC’s executive chairman for Scotland next June beyond saying that he wants to pursue non-executive roles and to play a part in public and charitable works. He is already considering one offer to chair a company in England, but he will take his time and choose those to whom he thinks he can add value and “have some fun”.
He has been 38 years with PwC, including its previous incarnation as Coopers & Lybrand which he joined as a trainee in 1974. He’s spent most of his career in Scotland though he’s had an international outlook and has been a member of the UK board for seven years.
He’s heard all the jokes about accountants, of their reputation as soulless bean-counters, but he tells a story from his early days that reveals a softer side. He was under pressure to sell the Hall Russell shipyard in Aberdeen to the property tycoon Peter de Savary. He knew it would mean the end of shipbuilding.
“I could see all these grandfathers, fathers and sons working there,” he said. “Something was telling me we had to keep it going. I refused to sell it to de Savary and got a better offer that ensured the continuation of shipbuilding at that time.”
He also worked on deals with Peter Cummings, the HBOS banker who took a lot of criticism over the bank’s failure. “I will not jump on the bandwagon to criticise with the benefit of hindsight. I still have a lot of respect for Peter as an individual,” says Blin.
Corporate finance and restructuring have been his meat and drink and he did one of the first administrations in the UK. In 1998 he advised a young Tom Hunter on the deal that changed the Ayrshire businessman’s life: the sale of his Sports Division retail chain to JJB Sports for £290 million.
Years earlier Blin had been advising another company that wanted to merge with Sports Division and Hunter asked him to work for him. The JJB deal was a triumph and would go down as a landmark event in Scottish corporate history. Blin did well out of it, but smiles when he thinks back to his involvement. “Tom got that advice too cheaply,” he jokes.