Jim Pettigrew interview: Dundee dynamo defies doomsters

WHILE stock markets may finally be clambering out of the doldrums, high-flyers across the City of London continue to cry into their half-empty glasses of champagne. An end to the recession still seems to be a distant glimmer and investors remain cautious about pumping their money into funds.

But one man seems unperturbed by the ongoing doom and gloom. Jim Pettigrew, chief executive of spread betting firm CMC Markets, bounces into his large and airy boardroom in Tower Hill, smiling broadly and proclaiming that he feels "fantastic".

Pettigrew, a Scot who likes to refer to himself as "just a boy from Dundee", appears to have boundless amounts of energy. He fidgets in his seat, talking ten to the dozen about his burning passion for the CMC. It's not surprising that he is more upbeat than many in the City. While fund managers panic over massive outflows of money, spread betting firms are rubbing their hands with glee. Placing money on the movement of shares and currency is no longer the domain of geeks and experienced traders. The general public are catching on to the fact there is potential for quick financial gains to be made from betting on the movement of a stock or share.

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"People want more control over their financial affairs," Pettigrew says. "Traditional providers have let us down and their products can be quite opaque. Our clients can decide how much risk they want to take."

CMC is one of the biggest spread betting firms in the world and has the backing of Goldman Sachs, which took a 10 per cent stake in the business in 2007. Its pre-tax profits were up 42 per cent in the year to March 2008 and revenues increased 64 per cent. Between 4,000 and 6,000 new CMC accounts are being opened each month by private clients. Its latest results are expected to be announced in late June or early July and Pettigrew is characteristically optimistic. "CMC is in a young and growing sector," he says. "I want to help grow the business in a sensible manner and take it to the next level."

He is quick to contradict anyone who refers to it as betting, preferring to use the expression "trading" contracts for difference (CFDs). CFDs allow investors to bet on the movements of shares, indices or commodities. Clients profit on the difference between closing and opening prices – if they get it right. But if a client trades in the wrong direction and has not understood the technology well enough to limit their losses, the impact on their bottom line can be devastating.

However, Pettigrew is well prepared for the question of whether some commentators see spread betting as just another form of gambling and something that more cautious investors should avoid. "Perceptions are changing," he says. "Goldman Sachs has reinforced our brand and that has been an important factor in that change." He adds that CMC places great importance on educating clients by providing online training seminars and DVDs.

At the age of 50, Pettigrew has spent the majority of his career in the City, but only made the move from Scotland because his wife, who is an eye surgeon at the renowned Moorfields Hospital, got a job in London. With his bouffant hairstyle it also appears as though he may not have changed his image since he made the transition south of the Border in the 1980s.

He has lost none of his enthusiasm for finance, saying that he remains intrigued by the working of markets. He believes the City still has positive assets despite its image of being populated by fat cats. He points to the amount of philanthropic work that goes on. He cites Peter Cruddas, founder and executive chairman of CMC, who was recently named the UK's richest online millionaire and continues to give money to good causes. Cruddas channels funds to charity through his eponymous foundation. It raises money for a range of initiatives, including The Prince's Trust, The Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme and Great Ormond Street Hospital. "I don't think there is enough recognition of the value created for the UK in the City," he says.

He replaced Cruddas as chief executive of CMC in 2007 when the firm was planning a 700 million float on the stock market. However, it abandoned the plan to focus on international expansion and was given a boost when Goldman Sachs snapped up a stake in the business for 140m.

While CMC has largely focused on growing organically and now employs almost 1,000 staff, it acquired Digital Look, an investment information website in May 2007. It opened an office in Edinburgh in January last year, its first outside London in the UK. However, the outpost was short-lived and it recently decided to close the base as part of a global restructuring to centralise business. However, Pettigrew is adamant CMC achieved success north of the Border, where it still employs the former office manager as a consultant to look after existing clients and win new ones.

Pettigrew is critical of how the UK has managed pensions and, like many in the City, of its financial strategy in general. "I didn't like the Budget and the dynamics of the British economy are of concern, just look at the size of the country's deficit. The Budget failed to address a whole range of issues. I wish it had been more positive. I wanted it to have a bit more creativity to help create wealth and provide a better standard of living for everyone," he says.

Pettigrew left Dundee High School to study law at Aberdeen University but then followed in his father's footsteps and became a chartered accountant. He started in the early 1980s as a trainee with Ernst & Young before working with number of Scottish firms. He then held a variety of senior finance roles at Sedgwick Group in London. In 1998 he made the transition to chief financial officer at Icap and helped it become the world's biggest inter-broker dealer. He moved on to Ashmore, the emerging markets fund manager, to prepare the firm for its 2006 float before being attracted to CMC by Cruddas.

Although running CMC is a big responsibility he says he is "bursting with energy" to get involved in other ventures. He gives off the aura of someone with hyperactive tendencies and he juggles a number of roles, many involving his first love – Scotland. Although he lives in Harpenden in Hertfordshire he remains well-connected north of the Border. He is a non-executive director with Edinburgh Investment Trust and is working on projects with Anton Collela, chief executive of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS). He says ICAS is "buzzing", a description for the professional body which could probably only be coined by a fully paid-up accountant. He also remains involved in Dundee Chamber of Commerce and delivers talks to businesses in the region.

A slightly more unusual passion for a financier is his work in raising the profile and income of the Waverley, the Clyde-built paddle steamer which is the last in the world still to plough the sea. "The Waverley has been with me all my life," he says. "It costs a lot to run and I want to see how I can help, for example in developing its charter business."

He recently put his money where his mouth is and hired it for colleagues and friends to sail along the Thames and under Tower Bridge to bring a taste of Glasgow to London.

Given his commitment to Scotland, he is concerned the country's reputation has been damaged by the demise of major institutions, most notably HBOS and Royal Bank of Scotland. "It's a potentially very dreadful situation," he says. "People used to immediately think of prudence, decency, integrity and even meanness when it came to Scotland. These were huge qualities. The danger is that they have been seriously undermined."

With Pettigrew's need to have several projects on the go at once, the obvious question is, how long before he gets bored with CMC and looks for his next challenge? For the time being, at least, he seems content, as the firm still has the "balance between entrepreneurship and control" which he strives for. However, he has one burning ambition before he retires, and that takes him back to the place of his birth. "I've just turned 50 and hope to have another good few years in me. My ambition, at some point, is to be the chief executive at a public Scottish company," he says.

He won't be drawn on whether he has a specific role in mind, saying he could turn up at any company where he thinks his skills and experience will help. Given his rich background and enthusiasm, many firms would no doubt be keen to call on his services.