Profile: Ian Suttie, tycoon with natural reserve

Suttie is not exactly reclusive, but he's not far off it ' he's very private. Profile by Neil K Kempsell
Suttie is not exactly reclusive, but he's not far off it ' he's very private. Profile by Neil K Kempsell
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HE IS the stealth bomber of Scottish business, appearing only rarely on to the radar screen of public consciousness before quickly disappearing. And that, by and large, is the way Ian Suttie likes it.

But all that changed last week when a major oil find in the Kraken field, 88 miles off Shetland, by Aberdeen-based First Oil put Suttie at the top of Scotland’s rich list. With one positive North Sea seismograph, he was catapulted out of the business sections of newspapers and on to the front pages.

For an oil tycoon with 40 directorships whose company’s 30 per cent stake in the Kraken field means he is now reputed to be worth more than a billion pounds, remarkably little is known about Suttie. Indeed, Suttie is said to regard the prospect of becoming public property with unalloyed horror. An oilman who worked with him said he’s “not exactly reclusive, but he’s not far off it – he’s very private”.

It is not that Suttie doesn’t go out in public, just that the grocer’s son doesn’t draw attention to himself as some other prominent Aberdonian businessmen do. He attends many charity events, but generally sits quietly at the back of the room, with his wife Dorothy (or occasionally with his son Martin – commercial director of First Oil – or one of his two daughters).

A slight figure who looks younger than his 66 years, he is always immaculately turned out. Those well-disposed towards Suttie interpret his discreet manner as natural reserve, while those who aren’t see him as stand-offish. “People are in awe of him,” says Peter Mitchell, the radio DJ and columnist who often MCs charity events.

Although Suttie doesn’t go for the conspicuous consumption and public one-upmanship of the typical Aberdonian tycoon, he still gives money regularly, if quietly. At a recent Maggie’s cancer charity auction, he spent the thick end of £50,000 on a long weekend aboard Stuart Milne’s yacht Wild Thyme, which is moored in the south of France; characteristically it was just under the market price for such a lavishly staffed vessel. Suttie also indulges his sporting and cultural interests. He enjoys theatre, and rugby, curling and golf (he was at the recent Walker Cup and is booked to go to next year’s Ryder Cup in Chicago).

Suttie isn’t averse to spending really large sums of money either, and even before his recent Kraken-driven enrichment he was developing a real reputation as a serious philanthropist. There have been smaller ad hoc gifts, such as the final tranche of the £32,500 needed to save a rare Edwardian fire engine for the Grampian Transport Museum in Alford, but there have also been some huge projects. Suttie gave a figure understood to be just shy of £10m so Aberdeen University could build the Suttie Centre, a teaching and learning facility at the heart of the Foresterhill health campus which opened in 2009. “I think if you’ve earned your money the hard way then you want to put back something into society and I think in today’s climate you can’t take your money with you and therefore it’s far better to see live projects that you’ve managed to assist,” he says. “There’s a lot of reward in that actually.”

Suttie has a mixed reputation in his home city of Aberdeen. Amongst the business community, he has been in danger of earning a reputation as someone who would rather issue an invoice than pay one. Last year his First Construction company was sued by Archial Architects for unpaid fees, which eventually put the architects into administration, while in 2002, Arthur Anderson sued him in the High Court for £151,000 of unpaid fees.

More serious, however, was his trial in 2005 on tax evasion charges. Suttie was alleged to have defrauded the taxman out of £21,000 in the four years between 1999 and 2002 by failing to declare more than £179,000 he earned on interest on a personal bank account. He was branded “irresponsible” by the sheriff despite being acquitted on all four charges. The rare peek into Suttie’s world revealed that he had more than 100 accounts with the Bank of Scotland in Aberdeen, and had never at that stage used a cashpoint.

Nor has Suttie always been popular with the Granite City townspeople. In 2005 he was forced to deny that his donations of £23,600 to former deputy first minister, Liberal Democrat MSP Nicol Stephen and almost £4,000 to then Lib Dem transport minister Tavish Scott were connected with his opposition to Aberdeen’s controversial Western Peripheral Route’s passing near to his Pitfodels home and close to a luxury housing development that one of his companies has just built. Pitfodels disappeared from the plans soon after.

More damaging, though, was the saga of Richards of Aberdeen textiles, which he bought when it was on the brink of receivership in 2002, moving it from city-centre Broadford to a heavily subsidised site at Northfield on the outskirts of the city. However, the company collapsed in November 2004 and 196 workers, many of whom on low wages, lost their jobs and pensions and received little or no redundancy. Although Suttie was not solely to blame (the pension fund was in a parlous state when he bought the company and by 2004 was £5m in arrears) the former Richards workers’ received an average payout of £3,500 each from an employment tribunal.

Worse for Suttie, not only did tribunal chairman Nicol Hosie say that “staff were treated in a cynical and insensitive manner”, but there was fury when it emerged that Suttie’s First Construction company were planning a £50m “urban village” development on the Broadford site. Union leaders accused him of “asset-stripping”, and implied that the Richards workers and their pensions had been sacrificed so Suttie could get the site.

Yet for all his travails, Suttie has been an impressively successful entrepreneur. Oil is a high-risk, feast-or-famine business but his portfolio of 40 businesses from property development to bars and restaurants has ensured steady growth. And now First Oil, already the biggest private British producer of North Sea oil and gas, has made a very wealthy man rich beyond his wildest dreams.