Interview: Lorne Crerar, founder of Harper Macleod

He’s a man of many talents, positions and environments. So, just what makes Lorne Crerar tick, asks Tristan Stewart-Robertson

MAYBE there are two Lorne Crerars. One is the lawyer who built up Harper Macleod from a converted sandwich shop and works to develop the business potential of Scotland. The other is the man who escapes to Gairloch in Wester Ross each Friday after work to sail and has an enormous passion for the Highlands.

The long-time University of Glasgow professor and chairman of Harper Macleod was last month appointed as chairman of Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE), the only practising lawyer to head a development agency in Scotland. So, is Professor Crerar split in two?

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“It’s difficult to see what could be better than chairman of Harper Macleod and chairman of HIE,” he says. “In relation to Harper Macleod, 2011-12 will probably be our most successful year and by the time I retire, still some way off, I see fantastic opportunities to be even more successful in Scotland.

“And for HIE, it’s a great time to be chairman because of the opportunities. The Highlands and Islands have some unique things that can be exploited to help the prosperity of the area.”

Crerar, 57, is not new to HIE, or to development, having served as deputy chairman of Scottish Enterprise Glasgow until November 2003, and more recently on the board of HIE. The son of a dentist, Crerar grew up in Renfrew and went to Kelvinside Academy. He laboured on the roads and in a forging factory during his summer holidays, but law was his real passion, and he studied at Glasgow. He has lectured there since 1981, on a visiting basis, on banking law, business law and commercial contract law.

But Crerar’s life in Renfrew had its other half in Gairloch, with a long family history in the area. His late parents spent their last 20 years there, and their home eventually became his home. So is he a Glasgow lawyer and educator – or a Highlands adventurer?

“I think of home as the Highlands. I spend half my time in Gairloch, which I think of as home, and I’ve got an Inverness office that we set up eight years ago. I have a passion and interest in business growth in the Highlands because I see it as being so important to the fabric of the community that it prospers and grows, and people do well.

“My passion has been Harper Macleod, which is principally based in Glasgow, but as I get a bit older I’ve been drawn more and more to the Highlands and I share my time to my commitments here and to my commitments to the islands. I’m straddling both worlds, happily.”

Crerar, a keen climber, is used to standing atop two peaks of Scottish life: the public and private sector. As well as his personal history with development agencies, Harper Macleod provides legal services for Glasgow’s 2014 Commonwealth Games, a mix of both taxpayer money and corporate investment. In some highly politicised worlds, particularly the US, public and private would clash in ideological battle.

Crerar – who undertook the independent review of regulation, audit, inspection and complaints handling of public services in Scotland – says Scotland is different: “I don’t see this public-private sector antagonism that appears in other jurisdictions. We’re the lawyers to the Commonwealth Games 2014 and you see the engagement of the public and private sector in pretty sharp focus. The argument, dare I say it, is much more confined to the jurisdiction south of us because I think in Scotland the engagement of the public sector with the private sector, partly as a product of our size, is very good. I think it’s recognised – the contribution that the public sector makes to our very diverse economy.

“I’ve seen enormous change since devolution and I’m very impressed with delivery by our public sector and the people in it. It’s a smaller place, people know one other and it’s much easier to work together and collaborate to get the best value for your money – or our money. That doesn’t mean to say it’s perfect, but it’s a major contributor to our well-being.”

Corporate and legal interests, however, have not always sat easily next to Prof Crerar’s public appointments. When the then Scottish Executive asked him to chair a housing improvement task force, the recommendations eventually led to the controversial introduction of single surveys.

“It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done because there was enormous resistance from my own profession, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and to a lesser extent the Council of Mortgage Lenders – the three big beasts in that market.

“But I became absolutely convinced that while the Scottish system was better thought of than the English one, we could come up with something better that didn’t follow the then English model and give a much better result for consumers. Many people complained about the waste of multiple surveys and the cost. So the single survey concept I became very passionate about. It’s fair to say I made few friends in my own profession.

“I was asked recently, ‘Do you think the profession has forgiven you?’ Probably not.

“But I still believe it was a real improvement, and I think that is supported politically; the previous administration and the current government saw the value for consumers in a less wasteful system. In the main, it was the most challenging thing to do but as the architect of it, to see the whole system change and adopt something that I’d thought up, was an incredible positive feeling for me.”

Crerar, who has seen his fair share of students over the years, says law degrees attract people because it gives you a “fairly ordered mind, and you’re quite solution-driven or answer-driven”.

But he does not just want legal minds in Harper Macleod, and insists partners and others get involved in business, the public sector, teaching and elsewhere to understand the markets in which they operate.

Whatever they are doing, it seems to be working for Harper Macleod. Prof Crerar says they have grown more than 20 per cent since April 2008, despite the recession.

Yet Crerar has time for yet more. He is discipline chairman of European Rugby Cup and the RBS 6 Nations, and last year travelled to New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup as a judicial officer. He was allocated the final.

“I’m a fanatic about getting out and doing things, and have lots of different interests. I have a fantastic house that looks over to Skye on the Torridon Mountains, I’ve got a sailing boat – a ketch – and a rip, and we go on the sea a lot. I climb mountains.

“I’m very fortunate that I really enjoy what I do. Harper Macleod has been a huge part of my life and seeing it prosper and grow is enormously satisfying. However, I have found that having the opportunity and luxury of having other different but related things to do very stimulating and enjoyable. And if you’re not enjoying what you do, you should stop doing it.”