Batting for Cricket Scotland, Malcolm Cannon
Malcolm Cannon built a career helping companies to restructure and grow, pulling Hunter Boot out of administration and steering Edinburgh Solicitors’ Property Centre through the storms of the financial crisis. Now, he’s going in to bat for Cricket Scotland, writes Peter Ranscombe.
Cricket is just for toffs, right? Isn’t it a game that’s played by public schoolboys called Crispin and Jasper, running around in white pyjamas while the crowd sit in deckchairs on the village green, snoozing after their lunchtime claret?
Malcolm Cannon has been sent to the crease to knock those stereotypes for six. “People think that cricket’s an English game that’s played by the upper-class, but it’s just as Scottish as football or rugby and it’s a sport that’s diverse and egalitarian,” he says with a firm nod of his head. “There are more cricket clubs than rugby clubs in Scotland and those clubs have an equal number of members in total – which sounds a bit strange, but it’s because you only need 11 people to play cricket and 15 to play rugby. Just over half of those members come from an Asian background.
“Many of the football clubs in Scotland emerged from cricket clubs, like Rangers, which grew out of Clydesdale cricket club. The players wanted something to do during the winter, when they couldn’t play cricket, and they chose football.”
As you’d expect from the chief executive of Cricket Scotland, the national governing body, Cannon is an enthusiastic ambassador for the game. But, he admits, it wasn’t his first love. “I’ve always been sports daft – I still play rugby at the grand old age of 55 and I’ve always been into athletics,” he explains. “All through my career, I’d wanted to work in the sports sector and so, when the chance to apply for the Cricket Scotland job came along, I jumped at it.
“When I was doing my research into cricket before applying, I discovered just how popular it is in Scotland and how many people play it. That really fired my imagination.”
From Cricket Scotland’s point-of-view, Cannon’s application must have stood out from the crowd. He’s been involved in not one, not two, but three major corporate restructurings, which have allowed businesses to grow and flourish. Since joining the sport’s governing body in September 2015, he’s been busy getting his ducks in a row. “As boring as it is, governance is critical,” explains Cannon. “The previous structure wasn’t fit for purpose, so we’ve recruited four new non-executive directors, which has been extremely positive and well-received, both by the sport and by stakeholders like the Scottish Government’s Sport Scotland agency and the International Cricket Council (ICC).
“We now have a more modern structure, in which the ‘business’ of cricket is taken very seriously, as well as the ‘game’ of cricket. Our two-tier structure means we have a ‘top co’, if you like, that’s made up of representatives from the regional associations, which runs the game of cricket and is its guardian; and then we have a ‘sub co’ that runs the business of cricket, with an independent chair and directors.
“That includes our first two female directors. It’s slightly embarrassing to admit we hadn’t had any up until now, but at least we’ve done something about it.
“Having female directors reflects the increased emphasis we’re putting on the women’s game. Interestingly, cricket is the only major sport in which men and women can play on the same team – if a woman reached the right standard then she could play Test cricket alongside the men. That happens regularly at club-level in Scotland.”
After studying physiology and pharmacology at the University of St Andrews, Cannon joined the pharmaceuticals industry as a sales representative, before moving into marketing. “Sales is a great grounding because you have to listen to your customer’s needs – that’s always stuck with me,” he says.
From pharmaceuticals, he made the move into the whisky industry as a business development manager with Highland Distillers, the owner of Famous Grouse. “Whisky is just another drug,” Cannon points out. “The drinks industry is regarded as the ‘party industry’, so it was great fun. But highly-regulated industries – whether they’re drugs or alcohol or banking or law – also attract the most-talented people, so I got to work alongside some very smart and serious colleagues too.”
Cannon was thrown in at the deep-end. His task was to launch a joint venture in India with DCM Shriram, a conglomerate run by Bansi Dhar, to import and distribute Scotch whisky, and create “ad mixes” called Blue Blazer and Red Hackle.
“In the mid-1990s, Indian import duty on Scotch was about 420%, which made Famous Grouse almost unaffordable even for rich Indians,” he says. “So, Highland Distillers and its rivals made ‘ad mixes’, which consisted of Scotch whisky blended with a local sugar molasses spirit.”
After the success of the Indian joint venture, Cannon was poached to move “across the corridor” to Robertson & Baxter, another business owned by Highland Distillers’ shareholders. A few months later, Robertson & Baxter took over Highland Distillers and the companies joined what’s now Edrington, Scotland’s fourth-largest whisky maker.
“It could have gone either way – Highland Distillers’ board was also considering a takeover of Robertson & Baxter,” Cannon remembers. “Some of my colleagues thought I must have known what was coming because I’d switched to the acquirer – but I didn’t.
“Time has shown it was the right move for the companies. But it made for some awkward conversations for a while with friends from work.”
Cannon was also thrilled to work on the purchase of The Macallan, his favourite whisky. But those uncomfortable conversations with his friends and colleagues were good preparation for other awkward moments lying ahead.
After a short spell as a business development manager at law firm Maclay, Murray & Spens, he was head-hunted in 2006 to become the chief executive of Hunter Boot, the maker of the iconic green wellie, which had been bought out of administration by a consortium consisting of former Conservative party treasurer Lord Marland, clothing brand owner Pentland and Thomas Pink shirts founder Peter Mullen.
Hunter’s revenues went from £6m to £19.5m within two years as Cannon repositioned the wellies from an outdoors tool into a fashion accessory. Accounts filed at Companies House show the growth has continued, with turnover now sitting at £113m.
“A lot of it was down to luck,” Cannon laughs. “That first summer was one of the wettest ever. We gave free wellies to 50 celebrities at the Glastonbury music festival – Hello! magazine photographed 26 of them in their boots.
“The business had expanded into the wrong areas, like luggage and leather goods. We bought some excess stock from the administrator and gave it away for free to help build our high-street credentials.”
Success involved hard decisions though. In 2008, Hunter Boot closed its factory at Heathhall near Dumfries, with the loss of 22 jobs; 48 posts had been lost two years earlier when the firm sank into administration. “It was horrible,” says Cannon quietly. “It was the worst time. Laying people off is not pleasant at all.
“Let’s be honest, Dumfries will never erect a statue to me, but the brand needed that closure so it could move on, and it should have been done long before, but I was the one who took it on the chin.
“Even though it was tough at the time, it was the right thing to do. The regrets are still there, because it was a rotten thing to have to do and you’re interfering with people’s lives, but it had to be done.”
Hunter then asked Cannon to relocate from Edinburgh to London, but the move wouldn’t have suited his family, so he left the company. He could have been forgiven for thinking history was repeating itself though when he joined the Edinburgh Solicitors’ Property Centre (ESPC) as its chief executive.
“ESPC had many similar challenges to Hunter – expanding into the wrong areas,” Cannon explains. “It had opened shops in England at great expense, but they didn’t work because estate agents not solicitors sell houses down there.”
Cannon joined in September 2009, just as the full force of the previous year’s financial crash was beginning to hit the property market. His first job was to shore-up support from the 170 law firms that owned the ESPC, visiting 120 of them within his first six weeks. “I had to stand there and take the brickbats because these people hated the ESPC for having got into such a perilous situation,” he recalls. “There was a feeling that it was a busted flush and people wanted out, but I asked them to give me a year to sort it out – in the end it only needed six months to get the bank back on board with a loan, supported by letters of guarantee from the member firms, which were never used.”
Cannon’s turnaround of ESPC included moving into lettings as a property manager and developing and launching a more powerful website. He was head-hunted again to join Lomond Capital, which was consolidating residential property firms under its Braemore brand, but the industry wasn’t the right one for him.
“Having worked in such tightly-regulated sectors, it was a bit of a shock to see how little regulation there was in residential property,” he admits. “I lobbied the Scottish Government to regulate the industry because it’s dealing with such large sums of money – we had £750m-worth of property on our books. Investment or asset managers handling those sums are heavily-regulated – why should property be any different?”
All the lessons he’s learned along the way now appear to be coalescing at Cricket Scotland. Having ticked off his party-piece with the restructuring, he’s now set his sights on growing the game. He’s re-established links with the Lord’s Taverners, a charity that helps poor and disabled children to play cricket and other sports, and the two organisations are working together on projects in Scotland, including an engagement programme for Glasgow’s Asian community.
Next on his hit list is signing up more sponsors. Tom Cross’s Parkmead oil company is on board, while the City Lets property website sponsors the Scottish Cup and Nuffield Health offers free gym use for the Saltires international side. Cannon highlights the overseas opportunities too – Scotland has fans on the Indian subcontinent and in Australasia, as well as at home.
Up first though are the summer matches for the Saltires. After facing Sri Lanka in Kent, Scotland will take on Namibia before two one-day internationals at the Grange in Edinburgh on 15 and 17 June against Zimbabwe. “Scotland has never won a one-day international against a Test side, but that could happen this summer,” Cannon smiles. “Watch this space.”
When he’s not running Cricket Scotland, Malcolm Cannon has another trick up his sleeve – he’s the co-owner of the Scottish franchise of Shirt By Hand, a company that – as the name suggests – produces made-to-measure shirts. “I’m the Victor Kiam of tailoring – I liked the shirts so much, I bought the company,” laughs Cannon. “I’d been mentoring the previous owner and I helped him find a buyer for his business. That buyer asked if I wanted to come in on the deal.
“We sell about 120 shirts each month. We kitted out the Scotland cricket team for last year’s ICC World Twenty20 competition and the Scotland rugby side for the 2015 World Cup.
“The prices are somewhere between Marks & Spencer and a Jermyn Street tailor. We have a guy based in Bridge of Allan who comes to your house and measures you for a shirt and then – as long as your shape doesn’t change too much – you can keep reordering them from the internet and they’re delivered within 21 days.”
The shirts are proving especially popular with his misshapen rugby chums; a bulging neck or long arms are no problem when your clothes are made-to-measure. Clients pick the design, the shade and the fabric and then customise their shirts down to the style of the collar and the colour of the buttons.
“People tend to order one for a special occasion and then keep coming back,” Cannon adds. “Some customers now have a whole wardrobe full of our shirts.”