The Big Interview: GrowBiz chief executive Jackie Brierton

Jackie Brierton is the chief executive of GrowBiz, which was founded in 2007 and provides support to anyone starting or growing a business in rural Scotland.

She has more than 35 years’ experience in business, enterprise and policy-development, and is passionate about helping people to realise their potential through enterprise.

Awarded an MBE in 2008, and inducted to the Saltire Society’s Outstanding Women of Scotland in 2019, the businesswoman was a member of the Scottish government’s National Council of Rural Advisers and has chaired the Rural Perth and Kinross Leader programme since 2015.

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She is UK expert for the EU-wide Smart Rural Areas project, a director of Smart Village Scotland, co-founder and vice-chair of Women’s Enterprise Scotland (WES), and got involved in GrowBiz in 2012 – saying she was “immediately hooked by its vision and unique approach to enterprise development”.

The executive says a mix of corporate, business, social entrepreneurship and policy experience has informed her current role. Picture: Kelly McIntyre.The executive says a mix of corporate, business, social entrepreneurship and policy experience has informed her current role. Picture: Kelly McIntyre.
The executive says a mix of corporate, business, social entrepreneurship and policy experience has informed her current role. Picture: Kelly McIntyre.

Can you explain GrowBiz’s remit and aims – and what your role is?

GrowBiz is a rural enterprise development organisation, founded by local people in Perthshire. It is a charity and provides free support to a diverse range of micro-businesses and social enterprises across rural Scotland, with some specific projects taking place in the Cairngorms Park area and Perth and Kinross.

We’re also about to start providing support to micros in the Borders and Dumfries & Galloway areas – in partnership with South of Scotland Enterprise. Our unique selling point is “relational support” – flexible and responsive services including one-to-one enterprise facilitation, interactive learning sessions, sectoral peer support meetings, networking events, and an accredited mentoring programme.

Our aim is to provide support to anyone in a rural area who’s brave enough to create their own job – and jobs for others! As CEO, I’m responsible for managing a team of more than 20 contractors and ensuring we’re providing the best possible support for rural enterprises.

GrowBiz has highlighted how the rural economy has been disproportionately affected by coronavirus – can you give more details on this and initiatives you have launched to help the sector?

It’s true that many businesses in rural areas have suffered great hardship since the pandemic hit, and not just in obvious sectors such as tourism. Scotland’s rural economy is dominated by small and micro-enterprises, and the effect of the lockdowns on supply chains has meant that practically every business sector has been negatively affected.

Many of our clients are self-employed and sole traders, and the criteria applied to some government financial assistance schemes has inadvertently made them ineligible to benefit.

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But we have also seen amazing resilience, and rapid adaptation to different ways of working, including digital upskilling, using platforms such as Zoom to deliver new services, and e-commerce. And a positive change resulting from the Covid crisis is the ethos of “shop local”.

We launched the Rural Enterprise Directory Scotland (Reds) last year to create a Scotland-wide community of rural micros, making it easier to find rural businesses to support – and a Reds rural gift card to encourage spending in rural areas. Reds members benefit from GrowBiz support in addition to their own events and access to a grant fund.

Do you think people underestimate the significance of the rural economy north of the Border – for example it has been found to be worth around £34.6 billion, and you have described it as "one of Scotland's greatest assets"?

I think perceptions of the rural economy are still steeped in tradition, often equated with agriculture, forestry and fishing – yet the reality is a very diverse and creative network of new industries, often driven by digital connectivity and greater numbers of young people and immigrants who want to stay in rural areas.

There has been consistent growth in the number of micro-businesses in rural and island communities over the last decade, and I think they represent a more sustainable model of economic growth for the future.

Instead of trying to persuade businesses to become the next Amazon, we should instead be encouraging and educating small and micro-businesses to be as effective as possible – working together, sharing skills and resources – and our job is to provide the type of support they need to achieve this.

GrowBiz has provided support to Perthshire-based Alba Medical Sciences – what has this entailed and to what extent do you aim to offer such backing to other pioneering rural firms?

We assisted the company with some marketing and fundraising support. As a high-tech business in a rural area, with a unique product, it typifies the new kind of enterprise that is increasingly able to survive and thrive in rural Scotland. With improved digital communications and access to local expertise, there is no need for businesses to have to be based in cities to succeed. There are very few businesses or sectors that can’t thrive in a rural area.

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Can you summarise your career before arriving at GrowBiz? To what extent has it informed your current role?

I’ve definitely had what is now fashionably described as a “portfolio” career! After graduating from the University of Edinburgh – many years ago – my first job was helping a Midlothian food company to rebrand and adopt a more professional marketing approach.

It seemed to work as it was subsequently bought by a multinational consumer brand and I moved on to a marketing role in Thomson Regional Newspapers (TRN). I caught the entrepreneurial bug and left TRN to buy a run-down local retail business in Edinburgh. With a lot of hard work, I was able to sell it for a profit and I bought into a national franchise selling fashion and home accessories, with outlets in the centres of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Sadly the franchisor sold out to new owners who didn’t see franchising as the future of the business, and we were forced into a long legal battle to get compensation. This was an early, painful lesson on what can happen in business!

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But I used all my hard-earned experience to take on a number of roles in enterprise support and development over the next 20 years, including supporting the most remote community enterprises in the Highlands and Islands, to running the UK’s first women’s enterprise centre in the east end of Glasgow.

This led to ten years of weekly commuting to London and Birmingham, starting with a contract with what was then the Department of Trade and Industry to advise on enterprise policy where I co-drafted and launched the UK’s first Strategy for Women’s Enterprise in 2003.

I also managed two policy centres of expertise in the West Midlands – for women and young people. A combination of corporate, business, social entrepreneurship and policy experience has definitely informed my current role, and I’ve tried to influence enterprise policy wherever I’ve had the opportunity.

You are the co-founder and vice chair of WES – what prompted you to help create the organisation, and how can women entrepreneurs help buoy the rural economy and their local communities?

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When I came back to work in Scotland in 2011, I was struck by the lack of progress in women’s enterprise policy and practice in the previous decade. After forming WES, we worked with the Scottish government and other key partners to get a Framework and Action Plan for Women’s Enterprise launched in 2014.

This has provided a strategic approach to making women’s enterprise a core contributor to the Scottish economy. From a rural perspective, women are leading the way in building businesses and social enterprises that are increasingly the “glue” in their communities, and they’ll play a key role in the recovery of the rural economy post-pandemic.

Who do you admire in business?

Many people! When I first started in business, I admired Anita Roddick, who founded The Body Shop. I was lucky enough to meet her, and she was equally inspiring in real life. She coined my two favourite motivational quotes: "If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito”, and “If you do things well, do them better. Be daring, be first, be different, be just.”

But I also admire many of the rural entrepreneurs with whom we work. They are hugely committed, resilient and creative. As are the team and board I work with at GrowBiz as well as my colleagues at WES.

I also need to mention my friend and role model, Isabella Moore CBE. Now over 70, the talented linguist started Comtec – a translating company – in the early ‘80s, and it has grown into a multi-million-pound business.

It is now managed on a day-to-day basis by her daughter Sophie, but Isabella is still actively involved, has just completed a doctoral degree at Aston University, and advocates tirelessly for women’s enterprise and the value of learning languages for business success. She was the first female president of the British Chambers of Commerce back in 2002, and if I’m ever flagging or feeling overwhelmed by my workload, I just think of her – and her amazing energy!

Since October 2016, GrowBiz has supported more than 1,800 rural enterprises across all sectors. How many firms would you like it to have helped by the end of 2022 – the year of its 15th anniversary?

We are currently supporting around 50 new enterprises on a monthly basis, in addition to our existing clients, and even if this slows down post-Covid, it’s likely that we’ll have added at least another 1,000 to our client list by the end of next year, assisted by the added value we can provide to rural businesses through Reds.

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My hope is that their contribution to Scotland’s economy will be valued and that there will be recognition of the important role they play in making our country one of the best in the world for enterprise.

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