Business interview: John Innes, investor

John Innes, formerly of Amor Group. Picture: John Devlin
John Innes, formerly of Amor Group. Picture: John Devlin
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IT’S not quite 11 months since John Innes left his beloved Amor Group, but he is already on the verge of finding another business opportunity to fill part of what he admits has been a gap in his life since the break-up.

Amor’s former chief executive didn’t hang around long after selling the Glasgow-based group to US giant Lockheed Martin – “for about roughly five minutes, to tell the truth” – choosing instead to hand the reins over to chief operating officer Scott Leiper. Having worked in the 1990s for oil multinational Halliburton, Innes knows his limits on that front.

“I talked to Lockheed who are a great bunch of guys, but I explained to them that I am not a large corporate guy,” he says. “I am more an SME guy. I have worked for large corporations before, but rather disastrously.”

He hung around the fringes at Amor for six months as a consultant, during which time he and his wife bought a home in Kilcreggan, about an hour north-west of Glasgow on the Firth of Clyde. The move was prompted by the collapse of the former family home in Aberdeen, which balked at efforts to create an open-plan kitchen.

The irony of finally living near Glasgow after years of commuting from the north isn’t lost on Innes, but it has allowed him to build up a network of contacts with agencies assisting start-ups across the Central Belt. Having sifted through “countless” potential investments, he expects to have invested in at least two new ventures by October.

“I am still just dating,” he says. “I have not bought a ring for anybody yet, but we are beyond the first date.” He was speaking last week after giving the keynote address at a networking lunch hosted by Informatics Ventures, one of the “various agencies” that have helped Innes speed-date his way around the start-up scene.

Closing remarks at that conference – held at Scotland House as part of a series of business events linked to the Commonwealth Games – were provided by finance minister John Swinney, who was one of the first to welcome last year’s deal to sell Amor. Having put £2 million via the Scottish Investment Bank into the deal that created Amor in 2009, the Government was one of several backers to benefit from healthy returns.

“That is why John Swinney likes me I think, if indeed he does like me,” Innes says with the wry humour of a man no longer bound by pragmatism.

One of the few things he can’t do is disclose the value of the deal for Amor, which created about 20 millionaires, Innes included. He is also barred from getting involved in any business that might compete with Amor in IT services, so his new potential ventures are in other fields such as biotechnology and big data.

“They are very techie – highly techie – and diversified in terms of sector,” he says. “Also, this is me very much at the ‘S’ of SME – this is much smaller than what I would usually do.”

Otherwise, though, Innes appears free to express himself with a degree of forthrightness probably not seen publicly since his days as a guitarist with 80s New Romantics Dekka Danse.

Despite his own status as a newly-made millionaire, he derides the hypocrisy of the wealthy who “suddenly discover their social conscience”. It’s not that the well-heeled shouldn’t give to good causes, but rather that some seem to believe that by giving these gifts they become benevolent humanitarians.

“I have known plenty of people who in business were mean, but when they give to charity they present themselves as great philanthropists,” he says.

“I am happy to support good causes, but I am still a mean-spirited Aberdonian. To my mind, a leopard doesn’t change its spots.”

Innes intends to vote yes in next month’s referendum, noting that too many people use “change” and “risk” as synonymous terms. Many companies fail because of their inability to change, he says, while assuming accountability for one’s own performance has “worked best for me”.

“You stand or fall by your own efforts – you are not reliant on a third party. That maxim has always served me well in business.”

His list of new potential ventures is down to “half a dozen runners and riders”, and despite his basically cynical nature, Innes admits the enthusiasm amongst these start-ups is infectious. His first deals will be direct personal investments, with relatively small amounts of cash involved.

Depending on how those initial deals go, others could follow next year.

“Some people say there’s not enough good companies and good ideas coming through in Scotland, but I don’t think there is a bad pipeline,” he says.

“The research is the problem. It’s just finding the time to do the due diligence that you have to do.”

John Innes in 30 Seconds

Job: Investor and non-executive.

Born: Aberdeen 1957.

Age: 57.

Education: University of Aberdeen.

First job: Playboy Casinos.

Ambition while at school: To be the next Jimi Hendrix.

Kindle or book? Book

Music: Beethoven. Rage Against the Machine.

Can’t live without: BBC Radio Six.

Claim to fame: Being mistaken for Scottish actor Bill Paterson; played in New Romantics band Dekka Danse.

Favourite place: Kilcreggan, Argyll.

What makes you angry? Hypocrisy.

Best thing about your job: Being able to make it up as I go along.