Business Interview: Bill Drummond, Brodies

Bill Drummond likes nothing better than relaxing with his family. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Bill Drummond likes nothing better than relaxing with his family. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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It’s the morning after the Scottish Council for Development & Industry (SCDI) hosted Mark Carney’s first visit to Scotland since he became Bank of England governor, and the organisation’s chairman, Bill Drummond, is back at his day job.

The managing partner of law firm Brodies is clearly proud that SCDI, which he has chaired for the past year, was asked to “pull something together” for Carney’s visit – an event used by the governor to set out the fiscal pros and cons of Scottish independence.

Both sides of the debate were able to take something away from Carney’s speech, in which he said a successful currency union would require “some ceding of national sovereignty” by Scotland, but Drummond politely declines to declare which camp he is in.

“As we get closer to the actual referendum, people’s minds will become more focused on specific issues,” he says, highlighting European Union membership as one particular topic that is often presented as a legal issue, “but ultimately it’s a political one”.

While the independence debate drags on, Drummond’s immediate focus is on Brodies, where revenues grew 7.5 per cent to £46.01 million in the year to April and operating profits before partner distributions rose 9.3 per cent to £19.3m.

With offices in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Brussels, the firm has also been growing its presence in Aberdeen since opening an office there almost three years ago. Today it unveils plans to move into a new base in the Granite City, capable of housing almost double its existing team of 53. Drummond, who studied law at Aberdeen University, was keen for the office, on Union Grove, to be within walking distance of the train station as “it’s murder trying to get a taxi on a wet night in Aberdeen”.

He adds: “I knew the city in the 1970s just at the start of the oil boom, when it was still a massive fishing port. It’s a tremendous area of activity, different to anywhere else in Scotland, but each of our cities has its own strengths.”

Brodies is also planning a move to larger offices in Glasgow, and last year signed up as the first tenant in Bam Properties’ £50m development at 110 Queen Street, opposite the Gallery of Modern Art. “We moved to Glasgow in 2006 and there’s been sustained growth in that area,” says Drummond.

“It’s similar to our approach in Aberdeen – we’ve got to invest in a modern law firm with a range of services that totally match what the client base wants.”

Those services cover ever-changing areas such as tax law, the planning regime and pensions provision. More than 2.5 million people across the UK have now been placed into a company pension scheme under the Westminster’s auto-enrolment initiative, which compels employers to provide schemes for eligible workers, and some 30,000 more companies are due to get swept up by the rules this year.

Some in the pensions industry have warned of a looming “capacity crunch” as providers struggle to cope with the influx of new schemes, while others believe many small firms are unprepared for their new obligations, placing them at risk of stiff penalties from the Pensions Regulator. Drummond, though, is confident that his clients are ready for the shake-up of the sector, adding: “Very little traffic comes across my desk to suggest otherwise.”

It is not just the pensions landscape that is undergoing sweeping changes, Scotland’s legal sector has witnessed a wave of mergers over the past two years. But Drummond stresses that Brodies “remains resolute” in its investment-led approach to growth, rather than seeking deals with other firms.

“We’re not approached too often and we’re not up for sale,” he insists.

“The business has performed relatively well compared to the market. Our balance sheet hasn’t been under stress – we haven’t had any debt to constrain our investment activity and we’re probably not considered to be vulnerable to being taken over.”

Drummond is also determined to see Scotland retain its jurisdiction over intellectual property law, and becomes visibly exercised at the prospect of the Court of Session being stripped of its powers to rule in patent cases.

A bill working its way through Westminster will create up to four local divisions of the European Union’s new unified patent court, but as it stands the law does not guarantee that intellectual property owners in Scotland will still be able to bring disputes before the Court of Session. As a result, inventors and companies may have to travel to other parts of the UK, or even overseas, to protect their patents.

Drummond says he wants Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael to “get this sorted out” to protect Scotland’s economic interests, adding: “This is awfully, awfully important – think of the technology that’s developed in Scotland.

“We have a robust legal framework to protect people’s rights and we ought to be able to do that within Scotland as opposed to having to travel to London or somewhere else to do it.

“We’ve got a separate jurisdiction here, and even more importantly we’ve got an enormous amount of investment in new technology. We’ve got to ensure businesses are happy to invest in all that activity in the knowledge they can protect their intellectual property rights.”

The threat to the Court of Session’s power in relation to patents echoes ­Carney’s comments on Scotland having to sacrifice control over some economic levers if it wanted to keep the pound after independence, and Drummond concedes: “It’s just a fact of the global system.”

He adds: “We’re used to it. It can be very frustrating as a concept, but when you think of the trade benefits that come from the EU and the individual rights of citizens to move around to work and live pretty freely, the upside is considerable in return for that dilution of your absolute sovereignty.”

30-second CV

Job: Managing partner, Brodies

Born: Irvine, 200 years and a day after Robert Burns

Education: Nairn, Kirkwall; North Berwick High School, then Aberdeen University

First job: Self-employed whelk-collector on the Kirkwall foreshore

Ambition while at school: Pass the odd exam, get into the rugby team and have fun

Car: Depending on how many hockey players I’m transporting, either a Porsche or Range Rover

Kindle or book? Book

Music: Anything from Amy Macdonald to Led Zeppelin

Can’t live without: Caroline and the kids

Favourite place: Home on a Friday night with the troops, squabbling over the remote control

What makes you angry? Defeatism

Best thing about your job: The sense of building something of value to our clients, our people and our economy