Anne MacColl is the global cheerleader for Scotland’s economic progress. While she is urging more Scottish companies to export – she also wants to attract more inward investors to bring jobs here. Kenny Kemp found her in fine fettle at the headquarters of Scottish Development International in Glasgow
She is an adventurer with an international mission. Anne MacColl has scaled heights and criss-crossed the globe for Scotland. Her remit is a mixture of long-term planning, clear-sighted strategy, and an imperative to deliver economic development opportunities for Scotland. However, there’s another more intangible, but equally necessary, element: her job requires a national pride and passion that would trump even the most die-hard Tartan Army football fan.
As chief executive officer of Scottish Development International (SDI), the international arm of Scottish Enterprise, she leads a team with 27 offices overseas and ambition to increase international sales by £1.7 billion by 2015 – and this involves helping more Scottish companies set off on their exporting adventure.
We meet in SDI’s head offices in Glasgow, as the First Minister sets off to lead a trade delegation to China. This time, she is not accompanying Alex Salmond. However, she is comfortable that all the preparation and planning have been undertaken by her team and that the First Minister and the Scottish companies are in good hands.
“We’ve got an outstanding team. Julian Taylor is based in Shanghai and he is one of our most senior people and we have a new head of China, Mark Dolan, who is one of our most experienced international people. So we've got great experience on the ground now in China, which gives us super confidence in this mission being a great success.”
It is usual for a Scottish minister to lead our trade missions. But Anne MacColl stepped in with aplomb earlier this year on a trip to Brazil. How did she feel about being the leader?
“It is a different dynamic. I felt the responsibility very keenly because it's really important for me as leader of the group to be able to provide the maximum amount of access and acceleration into that market for every single company on that mission,” she says.
The best – and only measure – of success is being able to return to Scotland and hear how companies can convert this opportunity into actual export sales. Anne MacColl is a rare beast: a Scot who is multilingual and fluent in French, Spanish and Portuguese. On the Brazilian mission, she delivered a seminar in Portuguese, which created a ‘Wow!’ factor.
“A few local people raised their eyebrows and said ‘a Scottish girl speaking Portuguese, that’s interesting’. But it worked well. Anything that provides an impactful step into a market for Scottish companies is good,” she says. It has become a national embarrassment that business people in Britain – and this includes too many Scots – presume that everyone is going to speak English. Yet making an effort to learn something about a language and culture is a clear sign of respect.
“It makes a huge difference. It really does. It's all about that global mindset, isn't it?”
For Anne MacColl, this ‘global mindset’ is a recurring and important theme. How does she define this?
“It's all about how do we help every single company in Scotland, every single business person in Scotland develop a global mindset so that they're automatically thinking what the opportunities are across the world for what they are delivering, rather than seeing it in a small Scottish context,” she explains.
This is about a passion for Scotland, with Anne saying: “I can bore for Scotland. I never tire of telling people about our great country and what we have achieved and can achieve.”
Obviously it’s a deep-rooted trait. Anne lived and worked for 12 years in continental Europe. And during her time in Madrid, she was doing her bit by politely correcting anyone who presumed she was English by saying ‘Escoces’. It was during her time in Spain that she heard about the chance to work with Scottish Development International. She joined in 2005, becoming SDI’s Europe, Middle East and Africa operations director, based in Paris.
“I kind of came in to SDI from the outside in. Even though I was out and about overseas, I kept in touch with an awful lot of friends and colleagues back here in Scotland. I remember friends emailing me and saying, 'Do you know SDI are looking to expand their presence?'.”
Scottish Development International was looking for more people with international outlook and experience – and a touch of that Tartan Army wae’s-like-us.
“I’m passionate about what we have here in Scotland: we have an incredible mix of ingenuity, high-educational attainment, a real sense of pride and place and identity. I think all of those characteristics are things that we can shout about more on the world's stage,” she says, gesticulating with both hands.
She clearly wants to shift the international perception of Scotland beyond golf, tartan and haggis, while appreciating these have an iconic value. There is continual work to explain that Scotland is a small nation with big entrepreneurial talents, technological prowess and world-leading strength in sectors such as health care and life sciences.
“The message about Scotland is getting out much more. However, I don't think there's any need for complacency. I still think that we need to continue to voice our message very strongly all over the world and help companies, countries, sectors of industry, recognise what Scotland has got to offer.”
Anne MacColl points out that 99% of opportunities for Scottish companies with a global mindset are outside of Scotland, and this is where they should be looking. For Scottish companies, the export journey begins by signing up for Scottish Enterprise’s Smart Exporter advice and can lead to an introduction in China involving a trade mission with the First Minister. Along the way there are steps that need to be taken to build the mindset.
“We will talk to any Scottish company with an ambition to export. The level and type of support will depend on where the company is on its journey. Support might be through a Smart Exporter workshop.
They come along to a strategy day, bring their business plan and we say ‘Let's work through what that looks like’. Then, further down the line, you might want to join one of our missions. Or we might suggest talking to Business Gateway: it depends on where we can add value. It is an interesting journey, our job is to recognise where a business is on that journey.”
With finite resources, SDI cannot really be expected to be all things to all people, so how do they decide where to go and when and how to open an office?
“We talk to everyone in the organisation to get a picture. I'm part of the executive leadership team for Scottish Enterprise, so obviously all of my SE colleagues are part of this discussion. And, of course, Lena Wilson is the chief executive with her strategic view.
We take a very measured approach to where we think the opportunity is and we work on that basis. While we examine this from a Scottish perspective, we also, very importantly, look at it from an outsider’s perspective.”
This means consulting the regional office directors, their teams and the GlobalScots to get an in-depth view of global opportunities. For example, looking at the prospects in the Americas over the next three to five years and deciding whether to open an office in Chicago, Calgary or Rio, all of which now have an SDI presence.
“We are looking at the balance of cost versus opportunity. We don't have a bottomless pit of money so we need to take very careful decisions about where we go. Like all businesses, we ask where will we invest and what's the return on that investment? One of the interesting things we've done over the last 18 months, which has worked really well, is to set up the Pioneer Programme.”
This involves three to six month assignments for those working in economic development in Scottish Enterprise or Highland & Islands Enterprise, where people are sent to explore a new market. It’s full immersion for a young ‘Pioneer Programmer’ who will live and work alongside the UK Trade and Investment department, UK embassies and the GlobalScot network to help make a recommendation about whether SDI should be in that market or not.
“The pioneer assignments are fantastic for two key reasons. They help us make those very measured business decisions about where we need to be and they provide an overseas development experience for individuals, which they might not otherwise get,” she says.
Not only does this bolster the global mindset among Scottish companies but it cultivates this mindset across all development agencies in Scotland. “I think that's really important. Everyone should have a chance to live and work overseas. It means people can touch and feel what life is like. If we're not convinced about how important that is, then we're not able to convince our customers. I'm on a real mission to make this work.”
She says the Pioneer Programme is working effectively with the intelligence gathering fed back into SE’s strategic decision-making while it also helps the individuals out in the field grow in stature and self-confidence.
“We need to benchmark what the opportunities look like against everything else. What's the market opportunity, how do we scope and size that? Arguably there is opportunity in every corner of the world, but we help Scottish companies focus on the products and services they have and the specific market they ought to be pointing towards. Rather than saying the whole world is open: where do you want to go? We might say to a computer gaming company have you looked at the West Coast of the United States?”
It is a two-way street of exporting and also enticing inward investors to come to Scotland. So connections must remain alive. An example is the Plexus Corporation, a software manufacturing and design business in Milwaukee, which has made a commitment to new inward investment in East Kilbride, creating more than 150 jobs.
It is also about playing to Scotland’s strengths and Anne MacColl points to Aberdeen and its dominant position in the oil and gas sector.
“Aberdeen is more than a Scottish city: it’s an international location for oil and gas business recognised throughout the world. Our oil and gas industry is worth shouting about: our levels of expertise in project management, down-hole drilling, subsea systems, development and infrastructure. We have skills that are transferrable into renewables and into an awful lot of other engineering projects across the world.”
Such offshore opportunities have encouraged SDI to open an office in Accra in Ghana, West Africa, to help serve the growing offshore oil and gas market, particularly in the sphere of training and operations. The office represents a foothold for SDI to explore all of Africa.
“We're opening an office in Ghana. I'm going out to Africa in February to have a look at East Africa too, to see the opportunities for Scottish companies in Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique, and how can we help accelerate those opportunities.”
What are the risks involved in opening offices in developing nations?
“We need to weigh up the market opportunity very carefully with the geopolitical risk of placing people in these offices and encouraging companies to go and work in these markets. We don't do any of those things with our eyes closed. We analyse very carefully. Our decision to open in Ghana is because there's a politically stable level of governance there.”
SDI’s offices in 27 countries around the world have become hubs to serve a particular region. So the new office in Rio is an exploratory hub not just in Brazil but for the rest of South America.
“The Rio office is going to help us make some decisions in the future about what direction we take. For example, this could be in Chile, which is a fast-growing and vibrant economy.”
SDI will be measured on its return on investment in setting up a new office. “We are investing in Ghana because we believe the return on that investment is a ratio of one to seven, one to ten in the next three to five years. So we will amortize that so those are the kind of business decisions that we need to take,” says Anne.
She also talks with great pride about the success of Scotland’s GlobalScot network, now with several hundred Scots pocketed around the world. For example, she name checks Ian Stevenson, the chief operating officer of Technip in Africa, a world leader in construction, engineering for the oil and gas industry, which supports the oil majors, but is based in Paris.
“Ian is one of many. He is an excellent GlobalScot, based in Paris, and he travels all over the world. Ian's got a massive role in Technip covering Africa, but he's an example of exactly the kind of expertise gained in the North Sea that moves from Scotland to another part of the world and delivers value to his company, but also to his country.”
With Alex Salmond’s recent visit to Beijing and Hong Kong we return to talking about China, a vast and complex place to do business with 200 cities of over a million people and megacities of up to 20 million, including Beijing and Shanghai. So where does a small Scottish company begin on such a daunting journey?
“I'd love a lot more companies to knock on our door; we have seen a massive increase in companies that we're helping into the Chinese market. That's increased by over 88% over the last five years.”
Scotland’s exports to China are worth £498 million of goods and services, which are shipped to the Far East, up from £295 million three years ago. There is definitely more that can be done.
“I still think there's a massive untapped market in China. However, it is all about the focus. It's too nebulous for a company to say ‘Let's go to China’.
Instead, we might say look at opportunities in Shanghai, or let us help you get in touch with a distributor in Beijing. Or why don't you come to our Asia food and drink event in Hong Kong because we think your product will work best if you take it to Hong Kong and then ship it from there into to China. So our job is to help companies to get that focus, the starting point has to be their products and service and our knowledge and intelligence of what will work in those markets.”
She says it is important not to be daunted by the macro economics of China. “It's very easy to say China could eat us for breakfast, the size and scale does blow you away. I want companies to feel there are still opportunities for them, but I don't want them to lose time thinking about the vastness of it, I want them to gain time by understanding the focus and specific sub-sector that we can point them in the direction of. It can be overwhelming.”
While Scotland’s biggest companies, such as the Wood Group PSN, Weir Group, Aggreko and Clyde Bergemann Power Group are the exporting elites, along with our Scotch whisky and drinks industry, increasingly, the spotlight is shifting onto Scotland’s service industries. How do we encourage these types of companies to think about exporting?
“I think we need to provide great examples of companies that have been there and done it. We need to raise awareness and ambition. Helping them gain enough confidence and courage to make those steps into the market is really important.
If I look at companies, such as RockStar North, it is an amazingly creative, fascinating story. In the first day of trading the new Grand Theft Auto game took $800million: that’s a success story for Scotland - devised in Scotland.” She also singles out the ambitious Scottish fashion label, Bebaroque, set up in 2007, which makes creative body wear designs.
They have recently expanded to the US, China, France and Japan with the help of Smart Exporter. Their designer, Mhairi McNicol, has been at London and Paris fashion weeks helped by SDI’s office in Paris.It is not all about taking Transatlantic jets to California and flying to Hong Kong and the Far East. There is much to be done nearer to Scotland.
“Europe is still our biggest trading partner. The United States are our top export destination, but after that France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium are next on the list. Last year we opened a new office in Stavanger, in Norway, in recognition of oil and gas, and the importance of companies such as Aker Solutions and Statoil. We're definitely not ignoring Europe.”
Earlier in the week of our interview, a delegation of 80 people from Basse-Normandie, in France, signed a co-operation agreement with SDI and the Scottish Government on marine energy, which was homing in on Scotland's growing expertise in wave and tidal renewables. It involved a trip to Orkney to see a demonstration of the tidal wave machines that are operating in the Moray Firth.
“There’s a real chemistry around what we can bring to Normandy and what Normandy can bring to Scotland. Opportunity for Scotland's supply chain companies to feed in their expertise into what Normandy is developing along their coastline in the marine energy space. I get a kick out of this kind of international co-operation and understanding.”
Anne MacColl obviously loves what she does. Her work is vital to the future success of our nation, and she makes a final plea using a shocking statistic: only 13% of Scotland’s dominant SME sector is currently exporting. Ultimately, this is where Anne MacColl and every single member of her team see the biggest challenge.
“This is not enough. So my call to action is to say to Scottish firms, ‘If you're not thinking about it, let us help you put that on the map for you. Let us help you work that into your business plan. Accelerate your growth through exporting and really take it seriously. We want you to have that global mindset. I fear for SMEs in Scotland if they don't do this. I fear for their future growth and success if they're not considering it.”
The ball is now in the court of Scotland’s small and medium-sized companies. There are no excuses for you not trying to develop a global mindset and seriously consider selling your skills and services overseas. Anne MacColl and her team are waiting to assist.