An articulate voice for business

An articulate voice for business

Nosheena Mobarik is the first chairman of CBI Scotland to come from a small business. BQ charts her remarkable rise to prominence.

Briefcase in one hand, winter coat and umbrella in the other, Nosheena Mobarik OBE is “relieved” to be spending a day in Glasgow having been in London for the most of the week.

Walking up the steps to the main entrance of the elegant building in the city’s St Vincent Street where her company M Computer Technologies is based, she is keen to talk about her business and her role as chairman of the lobbying organisation, CBI Scotland.

Mobarik, whose endearing and fun personality can often mask the fact that she is an extremely able and tenacious business woman, has a brief discussion with Iqbal, her husband and business partner with whom she founded the software company back in 1997, before getting down to the business of the moment.

Today’s interview is not so much about the well-documented success of M Computer Technologies but her CBI Scotland role. Seated and composed, she starts by talking enthusiastically about the CBI annual conference – one of her reasons for being in London – which saw Prime Minister David Cameron unveil a four-pronged strategy to “eliminate bureaucratic rubbish” and dismantle some of the procedures that have slowed down economic growth.

In a wide-ranging keynote speech to business leaders, Cameron also pledged radical reforms to speed up the way the Government takes key decisions in order to help boost economic growth.

“There’s no doubt that we must all make decisions more quickly,” says Mobarik. “Opportunities can be lost if we don’t and that stifles growth. Sometimes we’re all guilty of spending too much time talking about doing something when we should be out there doing it.”

Pakistan-born Mobarik is into her second year as CBI chairman having been drafted in two years earlier than planned after Glenn Allison, managing director of house builder Stewart Milne, decided to postpone taking up the chairmanship due to work commitments.

“I suppose it was a case of hitting the ground running,” she says. “We’ve been members of the CBI for 10 years now and I’ve sat on various committees so I wasn’t daunted by the prospect of starting my stint sooner.”

As the first Asian to chair the CBI in Scotland and only the second woman – Mobarik succeeded Linda Urquhart, the highly regarded chairman of law firm Morton Fraser – she is almost resigned to the inevitable questions about ethnicity and gender.

“People are always going to want to focus on the fact that I’m a woman running a successful business and an Asian woman running a successful business,” she suggests.

“But I think we have to move on from that debate. I am also the first chairman of CBI Scotland to come from a small business but none of these things are an issue for me – I always judge people on their abilities and their character, and I expect people to judge me in the same way.

"However, I do understand why it is a debate that interests people but I would rather  be sending out a signal that we have a very diverse business community in Scotland. The CBI is very representative of that diversity and, as a woman, I naturally want to see more women in senior positions.

“But I don’t just mean boardroom positions. Yes, it would be great to see more female CEOs and managing directors but let’s not keeping focusing on that – let’s focus on getting a better gender balance and more equality by appointing the right people to the right jobs.”

Mobarik describes the European Commission’s proposals for there to be at least 40% of women non-executive directors on the boards of big listed companies by 2020 as “not the way forward”, suggesting that quotas are “unhelpful”.

She says: “Women want to be there because of their skills and ability, not because they are making up the numbers. The danger is that men who are better qualified may be passed over – that’s not good business practice and I can’t see any woman being comfortable in a job or position she doesn’t feel she’s earned on her own merits.”

Articulate and measured in her comments, Mobarik points to the “strong and talented” women doing important work across all areas of society.

“Women are achieving amazing things in academia, for example, and sport. Business can learn from both of these in terms of the focus and commitment required to get results so we must be careful not to compartmentalise our world into public sector, private sector, welfare and so on.

“We are not just business people – we are parents who are interested in education, we all have families for whom healthcare is important. We are interested in transport, justice and welfare and all of the things that dominate the political agenda.

“Every business in the UK faces more challenges than we have time to discuss so we must work ever more closely with Government and find better ways to engage effectively with Government, both at Holyrood and Westminster. That’s why the CBI is so important to businesses across the UK.”

Mobarik highlights transport and infrastructure as “vitally important” for Scotland. Independent or not, she says, the infrastructure must be in place to enable businesses to access key markets.

“In my CBI role,” she says, “I have to look at every opportunity to boost Scotland’s economic prosperity and ensure that the decision-makers hear what we think – our opinions, our concerns, our suggestions and possible solutions.

“We’re in a period of difficult growth and are navigating our way through this when we don’t know what lies ahead. Constitutional reform in Scotland will happen if the electorate wants it to happen and if it does, of course there will be challenges for businesses. CBI Scotland will continue to work with Government to ensure that any changes are implemented with as little disruption as possible but let’s not forget that there could be lots of opportunities, too.

“The CBI values the UK’s single market and level playing field on laws, regulations and taxes that apply to business, and is far from convinced of the business and economic case for Scottish independence. And while we are all wondering what will or won’t happen in the referendum, there are other issues that we need to put our energies into.”

Mobarik points to public procurement as one of them. Almost apologising for bringing it up – “it’s a favourite hobby horse” – she feels as strongly about the bureaucratic hurdles facing SMEs in their quest to secure work as she did back in 2005 when she addressed the high profile Business in the Parliament Conference on the somewhat thorny subject.

At one stage, her own company specialised in providing technology solutions to the public sector. Now, M Computer Technologies is known for its work with the private sector. “Public procurement is what gives smaller companies a step up in business,” she says.

“It opens up opportunities for them but we have not yet got it right and we must get it right. “We can improve the situation by constantly putting pressure on Government and having a dialogue with them but it’s getting to the stage where there must a sense of urgency about it – I find it frustrating that we’re still talking about it.”

Mobarik has sympathy for SMEs unable to move onto the next stage in their development due to financial restrictions. But while she concedes that many companies are struggling to expand because they cannot secure loans, she would like to see businesses adopt a more tenacious approach.

“Businesses will always borrow, it’s the nature of the game,” she points out. “But I’m also saying that you really have to want to succeed.

“You can have the best business plan or idea in the world but if you lack confidence and drive, you won’t be able to convince other people that you can be successful.” When she was setting up her own business, Mobarik points out, there was no funding support. “We did it on our own,” she says.

“We didn’t seek support but at that time there wasn’t so much information available for start-ups. There would have been avenues for us to explore but we didn’t go down that path and that was our choice – there is no right or wrong way to start a business.”

Mobarik’s own career has not taken quite the path that she expected. In her formative years she wanted to be an artist and although she never pursued this as a career, she still loves art, supports it and finds as much time as possible to indulge her lifelong passion.

She then envisaged an academic career and started a course in business studies at Glasgow Caledonian University when she left school, but left to get married and have her family. The ensuing years were pretty tough as her husband was both studying and working for his family’s business.

Two young children had also come along but Mobarik managed to find time to study at The Open University before going back to university – Strathclyde this time – to continue her studies.

On graduating, she embarked on a part-time PhD but had already set up a small business specialising in printing barcode labels. “I found myself getting more interested in business generally and wanted to stretch myself,” she explains.

“I’d been lecturing in social policy at a college in Glasgow and doing a lot of charity work so my people skills had really developed, and I felt Iqbal and I would make a good business team using our respective skills.”

When M Computer Technologies was born, it heralded the start of yet another chapter in Mobarik’s busy life. The company has specialised in software for the management of retail and wholesale selling with its Maeko suite of software.

More recently, it has turned its attention to data-sharing and online software solutions with Goblin, an automated business-to-business trading platform for print on demand goods, and another new product, Snappy Seller.

As Mobarik points out: “A good business will adapt its products and services as its market changes.” Mobarik, who is responsible for strategic development and marketing, continues: “In our case the retail market is moving – and moving very quickly – towards online platforms so we have developed new products that interface into the likes of ebay and Amazon to make listing, ordering and delivering products more efficient and less time-consuming.

“We have never had such a reaction to any other product before. Online sellers can instantly see the benefit to their business with Snappy Seller and we foresee a very busy year ahead with a large number of customers ready to implement as soon as the Christmas period is over – and this is just at the beginning of our launch.

“Another exciting product we have developed is Goblin, which is a print on demand online engine. This has been developed with our partners in Chicago and their skills in fulfilment complement our technical skills.

"It’s working very well for us and I think more and more Scottish companies are becoming aware that this type of collaboration is the way forward.” Mobarik believes that companies need to adopt a more strategic approach to growth by thinking globally.

At the recent CBI Scotland annual dinner, she said Scotland must increase its export performance, urging companies to look to overseas markets for growth opportunities.

And referring to the CBI’s London conference, she says: “We heard about some these opportunities from business leaders like Aggreko chief executive Rupert Soames, whose company has grown to become a global company with more than half of its profits coming from overseas.

“We need to take our blinkers off and look to these world-class companies as examples of what we are capable of achieving.” The link between business and politics, she says, has never been more important and is one of the reasons she decided to join CBI Scotland.

“I heard Iain McMillan, our director, speak at an event and was impressed with what he said on the subject. I could see that it would be a good platform for meeting likeminded people and my own experience has proved that it is good for people from a small business background to be exposed to those who run big businesses.

“Small firms have to remember that they are always part of a wider business environment and it helps you speak to people who might be able to help you see things from a different perspective.

"It’s certainly helped us because SMEs have just as much right as the large corporate organisations to have their say and raise their concerns.”

During her recent trip to London, Mobarik also spent time in her role as chairman of the Pakistan-Britain Trade and Investment Forum, a position she took up after being personally invited by Lord Green, the UK Minister for Trade and Investment.

“There is real collaboration between the UK Trade & Investment and the Pakistan Government after an agreement was made between our two countries to increase bilateral trade and investment.

“This is a huge responsibility for me and a great honour. The British Government has recognised that there is a big market which we need to tap into so I need to keep driving the message forward and encourage membership.”

With Mobarik’s son, Haroun now working for the family business, she has reached the stage where she is comfortable spending a little less time in her own business. And having received the OBE for services to business in 2004, does she really have anything to prove? “Oh yes,” she says.

“My desire to be more successful and more innovative in business is still there and because my role within CBI Scotland has opened new doors, I feel I have responsibility to pass on the benefit of my experience to others.

"I’m interested in encouraging young people to open their minds and understand that they don’t necessarily have to follow a structured career path. I know many people whose path has been quite random and when you sit down to speak to people, you uncover all sorts of twists and turns – it’s really quite fascinating and you can learn so much.

“I think you also have to have the courage to change paths. If something isn’t working for you or you’re unhappy, then do something else. There are always opportunities.”

Inspired by her father, the retired businessman Muhammed Tufail Shaheen, Mobarik devotes considerable time to voluntary and humanitarian work, which has seen her visit Bosnia. She also supports Edinburgh Direct Aid and Glasgow the Caring City.

Is there any time for relaxation, then? Her infectious giggle resurfaces as she admits: “I did sneak some time to visit the National Gallery when I was in London at the CBI conference.” No-one is going to begrudge her that.