The Big Interview: Russell Dalgleish, co-founder of the Scottish Business Network

Russell Dalgleish would like to see the SBN represented in every major city in the world. Picture: Stewart Attwood
Russell Dalgleish would like to see the SBN represented in every major city in the world. Picture: Stewart Attwood
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In what he describes as a life-changing experience, Russell Dalgleish found himself standing on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square at 4am, wearing a kilt and waving a large Saltire flag. He was doing so as one of 2,400 people who took part in the project by sculptor Antony Gormley, enabling them to appear as a temporary living work of art.

“It involved incredible bravery and really brought out my Scottishness,” he says, having used the opportunity to raise money for charity.

Gormley said that by putting a person on the plinth, the body becomes a metaphor, and indeed Dalgleish literally waving the flag for Scotland on the platform seems a hard-to-beat representation of the work of Scottish Business Network (SBN) that he would later co-found. It aims to help companies north of the Border expand into London and internationally, connecting them with the diaspora of Scottish business leaders.

Dalgleish set up SBN with former Scottish Enterprise executive Christine Esson in 2016, after perceiving a gap in the market for bringing together Scots in the UK capital. “We want to assist Scottish companies who want to trade outside Scotland – and London’s a good place to start,” he says.

The not-for-profit organisation started out with an event at the offices of what was then Aberdeen Asset Management, with Martin Gilbert, now joint chief executive of Standard Life Aberdeen, offering to give a talk.

The plan was then to bring down a handful of Scottish firms such as booking and scheduling software specialist Appointedd to speak at the monthly events in the city, presenting to senior Scots, and leading to commercial activity. SBN also started to attract interest from overseas, which led to its US launch last year, putting down roots on the west coast. It is launching soft landing support centres for Scottish companies, the first of which will be in London and Dubai this year and will include desk space, specialist advisers, sales support and access to the local SBN member network.

In addition to its regular London meetings, events are planned for Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai this year. It has also launched an app-based platform delivered by Glasgow membership software firm VeryConnect, uniting members of SBN’s community worldwide, and a new consultancy service delivered by members and partners to help Scottish firms secure key first wins in new markets.

The Linlithgow-based organisation has about 240 members and has identified about 7,000 Scots around the world. Speakers have included Christian Arno of Edinburgh tech-enabled translation firm Lingo24, Steve Ewing of Informatics Ventures, Kirsten Cockburn of Scottish Ballet and table tennis para athlete Martin Perry.

“Now we need more Scottish companies to start looking to work with us,” says Dalgleish, who is aiming for SBN to become the largest network in the world for Scots in business, along the lines of what the Irish have done with their diaspora networks.

Esson was previously UK manager for Enterprise Ireland, and aims to link Scottish capability with opportunity-filled markets, and after winning a charity auction has even had a character named after her who features in four of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels.

Borders-born Dalgleish believes there is a lack of appreciation of the strength of Scotland as a brand. “We also don’t realise how small Scotland is in comparison to the rest of the world – so the opportunities [internationally] are huge.

“And our experience is that the world wants to buy Scottish products and services – but except for things like whisky, we’re not really knocking on their door.”

According to Scottish Government data, Scotland’s international exports (excluding oil and gas) reached £29.8 billion in 2016, a year-on-year jump of 1.6 per cent, while Scottish exports to the rest of the UK, again excluding oil and gas, were estimated at £45.8bn, an 8.8 per cent year-on-year drop.

Fast-forwarding to the first quarter of this year, export growth slowed among Scots firms, the first decline since late 2016, according to the latest Royal Bank of Scotland Business Monitor. The report said the figures reveal that overall Scotland experienced the weakest volume of business in two years.

Dalgleish also sits on the Scottish Board of Trade, and says one of the aims when this was set up was to try and increase the “aspiration and enthusiasm” for Scottish companies to trade globally.

Returning to SBN, the aim is “to continually keep on growing this, because the larger the network, the more value it’ll be to the Scottish economy,” says Dalgleish. “I’d like to see us having a member in every major city in the world.”

But he says Scottish companies do not necessarily need to go overseas to access huge growth markets, with SBN noticing that such firms are not doing enough business in London. The wealth in the city is of such a scale, “it’s almost like a country in its own right”.

The network has also learnt that companies looking for support need to make their requests as specific as possible, while it has been honing its own advice. “What we’ve done at SBN is we’ve spent two years trying to refine how you should present your case and we believe it’s about what makes you unique, what problem can you solve, how big is the market.

“The companies that we can help are probably the later-stage ones. They’ve successfully built a business in Scotland, they’re doing well and now they’re thinking about expanding.”

He explains that if a firm has identified, say, France as a market with strong potential, “if I can introduce you to half a dozen Scots who are willing to spend 20 minutes on the phone with you to give you their advice about how to trade what connections to make, what companies to go to – it’s a huge advantage”.

If someone is further ahead than you with their business and can tell you where the “potholes” are, “even if you just miss one, that’s an advantage”.

The plan to launch SBN was hatched in a London cafe by Dalgleish and Esson. “We just said ‘let’s do it’ – we had no money, not much of a plan.”

SBN was last year awarded a £30,000 grant by the Scottish Government and Scottish Enterprise, with economy secretary Keith Brown saying it came amid ambitions to achieve sustainable economic growth north of the border.

Dalgleish at the time commented that the backing stressed the “coordinated and collaborative” approach Scotland could take, now saying he believes Scots are “not as good at collaborating as we could be”.

A keen sporting endurance event participant in recent years (“I’m not going to win anything but I will always finish – and at 54 to be finishing is a pretty cool feeling”), he did a technology degree at Napier University, subsequently joining Bank of Scotland. Five years in, he resigned the day after they told him he could become a banker or a developer. “I didn’t want to do either of those.”

He later worked for an Aim-quoted disk drive company in a role that saw him regularly travel all over the world.

But with a young family, he came back to focus much more on Scotland, and started to get involved in helping scale technology companies. “That took me into London in 1999 and I’ve had an involvement in London ever since,” he says.

He is the founding managing partner of advisory group Exolta Capital Partners (“that’s a day job if you like – we work with SMEs and help them to develop strategies for accelerated growth”) and an angel investor via Edinburgh-based venture capital and private equity firm Par Equity.

Dalgleish also holds several board roles, at organisations including digital tech sector champion ScotlandIS as well as Glasgow-based tech-focused specialist recruiter MBN Solutions and IQX, a software-development company specialising in temporary recruitment based in Melrose.

And while he may have held some very senior roles in his career, “it’s not as satisfying as what I’m doing now”.

He notes the responsibility of SBN delivering now that it is self-funded via its membership, and says it generating commercial activity “will bring more money to Scotland – and it will create jobs”.

But a stumbling-block he cites is not getting enough Scottish companies wanting to take advantage of the network. “It really does sound daft – why wouldn’t they? I think it’s because they’re not yet showing the ambition that we need. I get contacted by American companies that ask me for help and insight, and we need more Scottish companies coming through like that.

“There is no door you can’t open now. There’s a world out there that’s of a scale that’s way bigger than you could ever imagine.”