Nick Freer: Bringing a level head to Scotland's boardrooms

In part because we advised the founding team on the announcement, it was pleasing to see the level of coverage Sir Sandy Crombie's appointment as chairman at Amiqus garnered last week.

Sir Sandy Crombie now chairs legal tech start-up Amiqus, founded by Callum Murray, right. Picture: Stewart Attwood

In many ways it was not surprising considering how highly rated the Callum Murray-founded civil justice tech start-up is and, of course, there is Sir Sandy’s lofty profile on Scotland’s business scene.

The story stood out for me as this is Sir Sandy’s first foray into the Scottish tech scene. It’s a major coup for Amiqus and is set to be a winning relationship as extensive industry research says adding experience to your team pays dividends.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

George Elliott would be Nick Freer's 'go-to' choice as chairman. Picture: Contributed

While technology favours the young on some measures – the average founder’s age at Facebook, Apple, Google and Microsoft is 23 – around 90 per cent of start-ups fail and you stand a better chance of success if you can blend young talent with executive and non-executive talent that has been there and done it before.

Former Kwik Fit finance director Graeme Bissett, who helped steer online tyre retailer before its eventual sale to Michelin, fits the mould as a standout non-executive chairman in the Scottish context and is also installed as a non-executive on boards including Scottish Futures Trust and Anderson Strathern.

So what do the nation’s top headhunters think on the subject? MBN Solutions CEO, Michael Young, says a good non-executive chairman should help “define and deliver strategic goals” to build “strength and sustainability”. Denholm chairman John Denholm pinpoints “management rigour”, “commercial astuteness” and bringing “input the company doesn’t already have” to the table.

George Elliott would be Nick Freer's 'go-to' choice as chairman. Picture: Contributed

Lisa Thomson, founding director of Purpose HR, says “grey hair” experience brings “not just lessons learned” but also “a black book of contacts and access to potential clients”. Carlyle Associate’s Duggie Carlyle has witnessed a marked difference in the chances of success when companies bring on “quality non-executives or chairs early in a business’s lifecycle” who can improve the chances of “scaleable propositions.”

Gender balance and diversity in the boardroom, including in the tech world, is getting well-deserved attention in 2017. When you look at our most successful technology company, Skyscanner, it’s notable that they appointed a female chairperson in 2013 in the form of Margaret Rice-Jones.

When I found my own world-beating start-up (no laughing please as the average age of an entrepreneur is approximately 40), I’ve already decided on my go-to chairman… well, if he’ll have me. George Elliott ticks all the boxes if you’re a Scottish technology business that wants to go places.

A former Scottish schools rugby captain from the Borders, Elliott was a partner at Grant Thornton in Edinburgh before earning his spurs in the tech world in the 1990s in business development and commercial directorship roles. Next up was a CFO spot at Wolfson Microelectronics in the early 2000s, when the company won major international contracts with the likes of Apple and Microsoft.

Chair of Craneware for the last decade and recently announced as the new chair at IndigoVision, Elliott possesses that unique blend of commercial, financial and international expertise that money can’t buy. A seasoned non-executive chairman at established tech companies, the first start-up George got involved with, Two Big Ears, was sold to Facebook last year in one of Scotland’s most remarkable tech exits of recent times.

A boardroom can be a high-pressure environment and non-executives, particularly chairmen, need to bring a level head when others are losing theirs. Research suggests a chairman with a good sense of humour and a few funny stories can come in handy.

George Elliott ticks this box too, so if you ever get the chance, ask him about the time he shared a flat with Scottish rugby legend Andy Irvine.