Changing for the better

Changing for the better

Fergus Ewing wears three hats as a Scottish Government minister - for Enterprise, Tourism and Energy, all essential aspects of Scotland’s economy. Kenny Kemp caught up him.

A delicate pane of stained-glass has been placed against a large modern office window in the members’ block of the Scottish Parliament

It reads: Now’s the Day, and Now’s the Hour – a lyric written by Robert Burns for the rousing air Scots Wha Hae, the party anthem of the Scottish National Party.

Although it is not quite the hour, with the Scottish Referendum approaching in 2014, we are beginning to ‘See The Front of Battle Lour’ – as the verse continues. The Saltire-styled pane is in the woodpanelled office of John Swinney, the Scottish Finance Minister, who has kindly vacated his room to allow BQ Scotland to interview his Scottish cabinet colleague Fergus Ewing.

While there is a loftier debate on Scotland’s future going on, Fergus Ewing is involved in the bread-and-butter business as Scotland’s Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism, three areas of acute interest for readers of BQ Scotland.

Fergus Ewing is steeped in the politics of Scotland: a central figure in Scotland’s most famous nationalist dynasty. As an 11-year-old boy, in November 1967, he was caught up in the excitement of his mother – Winnie Ewing - triumphing in the shock by-election victory in Hamilton.

In one iconic image, a young Fergus is pictured, chin against the train window, with his waving mother in her twin-set suit on the train to London [‘I was put down for SNP membership at birth,’ he says].

Winnie Ewing, who later went on to become the indomitable Madame Ecosse in the European parliament, was Scotland’s first woman SNP Member of Parliament in Westminster.

Fergus’ wife was the highly-regarded Margaret Ewing, the former MP and as Margaret Bain one of the 11 nationalists elected in the high-point election of 1974, later a MSP for Moray, who sadly passed away in March 2006, while his sister is Annabelle Ewing, an MSP for Mid Scotland Fife Region.

Fergus was elected to the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and became a Minister in 2011. So it is little wonder that he should view everything through a nationalist prism. Is it now the time and now the hour for Scotland?

“I think Scotland is changing. And it is changing for the better. It is a country that is not ashamed about becoming entrepreneurial. It’s a country that now encourages young people not just to go off to study, as I did, to become a lawyer, a doctor or an accountant, but to be an engineer, a surveyor, scientist or a manager.”

Fergus Ewing’s starting point is about young people and the future. He opens by talking about his attendance at an event hosted in the Glasgow Science Centre, and run by Springboard, a charity that aims to introduce young people to careers in tourism.

He was particularly impressed with Springboard’s FutureChef, the UK’s biggest cooking challenge for 12-16 years olds.

“These types of events, and similarly the young scientist awards, are brilliant because they inspire young people. I went around the tables after the Springbaord dinner and spoke to all the young people to congratulate and ask: ‘Where will you be in five years’ time? And what has made the biggest difference to being able to cook a marvellous meal? Some of the winners were aged 13. The answer was: ‘My chef mentor.”

He cites WB Yeats: Education is not about filling a bucket, but about lighting a fire. “If we want to enthuse and inspire young people in Scotland to become entrepreneurs then we have to use these mentoring techniques.”

And he is convinced that increasing mentoring – both official and informally – across all industry can help build the nation’s future. “In the case of the chefs, it was giving their time to bring on young people.

“We are fortunate in Scotland in that we have a core of business organisations that follow this model too.”

He reels off the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors, the chambers of commerce, the CBI, the SCDI and other trade bodies, and says they are all making a great contribution to Scotland’s enterprise story. He mixes, meets and dines with all of these business groups in Scotland.

“Probably rather too many dinners,” he jokes poking his tummy, although he’s fresh-faced and trim for a 55-year-old and has run several marathons, including the 1998 New York Marathon in a respectable time of 3 hours 56 minutes.

Fergus Ewing was a lawyer in Glasgow and ran his own legal practice and small business for 17 years and was a member of the Federation of Small Businesses and the SCDI, so his understanding of the trials and tribulations of SME Scotland has been forged in this time.

“They all have one thing in common: their members are involved as mentors, as role models who impart free advice and give their time and experience with the specific aim of encouraging youth and developing businesses,” he says.

He cites the Prince’s Scottish Youth Business Trust in Scotland, which encourages 18 to 25 year olds who want to start their own business, saying it achieves more in Scotland per head of population than the rest of the UK.

“The reason for that is not just a monetary one but they have regional organisations in Scotland where a young person applies for the various grades of help - of £1,000, £5,000 and £25,000 – with a panel of three volunteers. It is this panel that makes it work: a slim, lean management structure reliant on volunteers throughout this country,” he says.

With his political life running in parallel, Fergus Ewing’s legal business – with never more than five people working for the firm – taught him that in matters of policy about business it is often best to take the lead from what business needs.

“I did a fair amount of work helping people with a business and helping them to keep going. I was keen to help people preserve their family home or business in the South side of Glasgow.

“I became a specialist in the area of bankruptcy law. It was largely a staple diet of commercial and domestic conveyancing, wills, executory, civil and criminal court work,” he says. Fergus Ewing is a big fan of his enterprise predecessor Jim Mather, although he doesn’t share his avid passion for statistics.

“Statistics do show that the gap between Scotland and England is narrowing: from 16% to 12%, based on VAT and PAYE registrations per 10,000 adults.

“What is of more interest to me rather than statistics which you can always debate, argue, challenge and something expose as misleading, is what we are actually doing.” “It’s not just us as the Government. More importantly, it is what business is doing in rather than Government, particularly in relation to business.

“We have, for example, the Entrepreneurial- Spark with their hatcheries in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Ayrshire.”

Sir Tom Hunter, Sir Willie Haughey and Jim Duffy are the key entrepreneurial figures driving E-Spark, with the Edinburgh Hatchery, at South Gyle, launched on 4 February.

The official opening was undertaken by Ann Gloag, co-founder of Stagecoach Group, and an investor in Scottish start-ups.

The Edinburgh hatchery is expected to be home to up to 35 ‘chiclet’ businesses, receiving mentoring support in serviced offices at South Gyle for up to one year. The infrastructure is being provided by Edinburgh Napier University and City of Edinburgh Council, with backing from Royal Bank of Scotland and PwC.

“We’ve funded the Scottish Edge fund, where we’ve already given out £540,000 to help 17 Scottish entrepreneurial businesses. This was set up by John Swinney with awards of up to £50,000 to help young businesses and the next round is a further £750,000 with applications closing soon. [Tuesday, 16 April].

“I’m a great believer in concrete programmes that reach out to individual businesses and young people, giving them practical help and the Prince’s Youth Business Trust and the Edge Fund are two good models in Scotland.

"And Entrepreneurial Spark has also caught the imagination so we are looking to see more of the hatcheries in other parts of Scotland.”

What does he think about Scotland’s business angel community and the creation of the Scottish Co-Investment Fund, driven forward by Scottish Enterprise, is it a success story that is being copied by the rest of the UK?

“Absolutely. I think the angel community generally in Scotland has been one of our unsung successes.

"The point was made when I had a meeting with the Scottish Investment Bank, LINC and individual business angel groups, that their contribution of investing £500m in Scottish firms over the last ten years, if that was an equivalent US$5bn in the UK, it would be trumpeted from the rooftops.

"We haven’t heard enough about it – the angel syndicate model of having ‘sifters’ who examine the business plans before putting it to the board of five to all agree a ‘yes’, is a very smart way of funding.”

He speaks of the ‘well-honed critical faculties of business people able to detect potential gems’ and applauds the number of wealthy people living in Scotland who are very publicly spirited in their support for young companies.

“Things like business mentoring and angel investment are part of the Scottish way. It is gigantic contribution to Scottish commercial life – and it probably always has been. In the days before Big Government, it would simply be done in a merchant’s house or through the chambers of commerce and at a meeting in coffee houses.”

Wearing his hat as Minister for Tourism – and representing a Highlands constituency - is he heartened by the enterprising companies emerging in the outdoor leisure and holiday market across Scotland? And what can be done to nurture them?

“Yes, there is incredible talent in outdoor activities and sport in Scotland. Especially, snow sports, mountain biking, mountaineering, sailing and leisure cycling and support for running and walking with all its various events.

"For example, a major part of tourism success in Speyside, where I live, has been the differing range of attractions. “That’s a tribute to a whole lot of businesses and volunteers.”

He also mentions a clutch of entrepreneurial people, such as Clive Freshwater, who runs the outward bound activity centre at Loch Insh, near Aviemore, as a terrific activist. [“Clive’s a great character with a marvellous family filled with Olympic sporting achievement.”]

“On the tourism front, this is the Year of Natural Scotland and the idea that I have offered to the Scottish public – which I hope will gain traction – is a very simple one: free travel in April, giving away thousands of bus and ferry tickets, to coincide with the first John Muir day on 21 April.

“I think all of us take for granted the huge array of attractions on offer – on our own doorsteps – and this is a general human failing, to take what we have for granted; the grass is always greener in some other country; well it is not, why not make this year the year we visit the Inverewe gardens, or the National Portrait Gallery, or see for ourselves the Falkirk Wheel, or enjoy the marvellous whisky experience on Speyside, or visit the Camera Obscura in Edinburgh?

“Why don’t we take our families out instead of sitting in front of the television?

“We’ve got amazing scenery and wonderful walks – such as the Lairig Ghru – which is a tough 29 miles that I remember doing some years ago.”

He wants us to get out and about, take our friends and family. “It is based on our inherent national sense of guilt,” he says with a smile, referring to Scotland’s Calvinist DNA.

“That’s a big motivator in Scotland: guilt and fear of being seen as lazy. We all recognise there are a huge number of things on our doorstep.”

Fergus Ewing himself lives near Boat of Garten and lists a number of star visitor attractions, including golf courses, and places to see, such as Rothiemurchus, all within a brief car journey of his house.

The Minister acknowledges that the internet has helped Scotland as a destination, with more people able to see what the country has to offer, and then making a decision to give it a try.

“It has overcome the distance and, hithero, the enormous cost of advertising. Smart websites selling Scottish businesses can be worth thousands in terms of customers.”

One of the successes of Scotland’s business tourism has been in conferences and symposiums, with a recent expansion of five-star facilities in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen.

“It became evident to me as Minister early on that we were beginning to lose some bids for conferences to other major international conference venues because we were not able to match subvention payments being paid by other European cities, such as Vienna, Barcelona or Copenhagen.

“So we set up a £2m fund and have attracted 17 major conferences that we might not have got to come to Scotland. The expected revenue from this so far is £55-56m. That’s been a success story.”

He also points out that the investment in Scotland’s top hotels and improvements in its boutique guest houses and other attractions - like its whisky trail - are worth a great deal to Scotland.

“If you look at hotels, such as the Balmoral, the Caledonian-Waldorf Astoria, the Sheraton Grand in Edinburgh, and then the investment in the National Galleries, the Portrait Gallery, and the Transport Museum, the Science Centre and the new Hydro Arena in Glasgow, and the Burns Centre outside Ayr, if you aggregate all the investment there has been in recent years, then we really have seen in Scotland a massively improved quality to what we offer visitors.

"You’ll note that CNN voted Scotland as the best country in the World to visit. That’s a tribute to VisitScotland,” he says with some pride.

Scotland’s attractions – such as castles, whisky and golf - are magnets to attract high quality visitors and with Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles this means extra business for those keen to grasp the opportunity.

“What’s also encouraging to me in tourism is we now have someone like Stephen Leckie, leading the Scottish Tourism Alliance. I think for the first time a private sector body representing tourism has a very strong voice, based on the successful experience of running the Crieff Hydro, which has been in the family for generations. Tourism isn’t complicated: its aim is to make people feel happy.” So what makes people happy?

“It’s pleasant people, a welcome and a feeling that they are in a friendly country?” But are we doing enough about this here in Scotland?

“I think we are – but we always need to do more. We want to welcome our visitors when they arrive in Scotland and the industry is better than it used to be. We will also make them happy by giving them high quality food and drink.”

He adopts a more strident nationalist stance wearing his energy hat, although he says he is the ‘new kid on the block and doesn’t want to muscle in on anyone’s balliwick’.

“I could never see why Scotland shouldn’t run all of its own affairs. It is illogical that we have to wait for decisions from London about industries, such as oil and gas, about which, until relatively recently, they did not seem particularly interested in, leading to some disastrous and appalling decision-making.”

Recent comments from senior oil and gas industry figures in Aberdeen have been critical about the revolving door of UK energy ministers in ever-changing portfolios.

“I liked Charles Hendry. And his replacement, John Hayes, appointed in September 2012, is still an unknown quantity. As a Scottish Government, we brought forward an oil and gas strategy last May. And I was determined that it was industry-led – and it is – so it has buy-in from the industry.

“Now we are implementing it and helping more Scottish SMEs, setting up a £10m Innovation Fund.”

Fergus Ewing and his department are currently working with the UK Government on a joint UK/Scottish Government event in June designed to introduce SMEs to possible sources of investment, including the Scottish Investment Bank, the Green Investment Bank, and Business Growth Fund.

“I’m immersed in the oil and gas industry in Scotland and I think there has never been a better opportunity than now.”

But hasn’t the arrival and the hype about the plentiful supply of shale gas in the US knocked the Scottish Government’s renewables strategy? Energy economists are now predicting that cheap imports of gas could make some North Sea offshore wind investment too expensive in the short to medium term.

“Whatever happens with shale oil – and whatever way that goes – there will still be a need for renewable energy.

"Our success in renewable energy has been marked and we are seen in both the European Union and in the finance world as the best place in Britain for renewables; because of our strong support, which is not qualified by vacillation or hesitation or repetition of criticism as down south. I’m struck by the strength of investment as a factor of confidence in government and policy and approach.

"You can’t be half-hearted in government; fortune favours the bold. So it has proved. On shale oil and gas, our view is that you have to take an evidence-based approach. There is plainly huge potential as the US has shown, but will it work in Scotland and the UK? We have to very carefully consider the emerging evidence about environmental impact and proceed on the basis of evidence. That’s our approach.”

He says, despite the talk, there is no imminent sign of any major activity with Scotland’s shale gas reserves. Those who know the history of Young Paraffin Light and Mineral Oil Company, the shale industry at Pumperston with its massive coking stills, and see the pink bings of West Lothian, might sigh with relief that, thus far, there are no plans to re-create it in Scotland. Fergus Ewing is extremely personable.

He apologises about his streaming cold, which has floored him the previous week and confined him to his home, so there is plenty of outstanding paperwork to attend to. His aides knock on the door and say his presence is needed back on the floor of the Scottish Parliament.

With a friendly smile and handshake, the Minister is off again to ‘face the front’ of political battle.