The Lorne Gathering

The Lorne Gathering

Lorne Crerar is chairman of Harper Macleod LLP, the law business he founded. It has grown to become one of Scotland’s most prominent firms, recently merging with Bird Semple and was the official legal services provider of Glasgow 2014. BQ Business Lunch writer Jenny Hjul caught up with him after the Games in a new Glasgow steakhouse, opposite Kelvingrove Park.

Lorne Crerar arrives early for lunch, before the local business community descends and before I’ve had a chance to dig my Dictaphone out of my bag. By the time I get organised he is already enthusing about a new gin distillery in the Highlands and apologising for not being a whisky drinker, despite his love of all things Scottish.

This is the public sector boss talking, rather than the lawyer, but he could be either, in his sober blue (suit, shirt and tie). He could also pass for a university professor, albeit an exceptionally well-tailored one.

What he definitely does not look like is a trouble maker but that, he reveals, is what he was a long time ago, with a penchant for fighting and throwing rocks through his headmaster’s window.

It may be unkind to mention this behavioural blip so soon but surely there is hope for everyone if a man with his CV once ‘struggled’ to get into university. There is nothing about his demeanour now that even hints at adolescent angst and asked to describe himself he says ‘affable, easy going, but pretty driven’.

The staff, in all his offices, would no doubt agree. He exudes quiet self-confidence and, despite what must be a very full diary, he seems relaxed and unhurried over lunch in the Butchershop Bar and Grill, at the Kelvingrove Gallery end of Sauchiehall Street.

But Lorne insists he was ‘a difficult pupil’ and it took dedication from his secondary teachers at Kelvinside Academy to turn him around.

‘Because I’d done so little by the time I got to my O-levels I had to work hard from very limited groundings,’ he says.

Scraping into Glasgow Law School was his salvation. ‘I got a clean sheet and that was such a great opportunity.’

He’d always wanted to be a lawyer – ‘for reasons I never really understood. I really loved the logic of the law and even now, give me a book of fiction or give me a legal textbook or a session case and I’ll read the session case.’

He ended up graduating as the best student in his class. ‘I surprised everyone, including myself,’ he says.

He did his traineeship in one of Scotland’s oldest firms and was a partner within a year of qualifying. But it wasn’t long before he was looking for a new challenge and he jumped ship to Ross Harper & Murphy.

‘I did that in truth to do criminal law but the glamour of it was quickly dispelled for me,’ he says.

He returned to the business division, steered the company through financial difficulties at the end of the 1980s, and then left, taking the commercial practice with him. Harper Macleod was born.

‘We had about £2.5 million turnover so it was the best deal I ever did in my life,’ he says.‘Now we’re £21 and a bit million and have just joined up with Bird Semple, which will take us up to £23 to £24 million and 350 people.’

In fact, the merger is imminent when we meet but Lorne is characteristically cool. ‘Harper Macleod has been my baby. It’s been an amazing journey but what it’s always been is a business.’

And as the chairman of the business he employs executives to manage things…‘they are much better at it than me’.

Besides, there are other demands on his expertise. One of these is Glasgow University, where he was invited back to tutor at just 23. He taught ‘almost every subject’ in the law department and when a banking chair came up he wrote a book on banking to prepare himself and got the job. These days, he teaches two classes every Thursday evening, to undergraduates and postgraduates, and loves it.

‘I enjoy being around the students and because I’m practising I can give an insight into the law. Both classes get a chance to come to my office and see what people do.’

But he is concerned about the lack of opportunities out there for today’s law graduates and says that to do well ‘you’ve got to be very good, you’ve got to have a passion’.

‘The number of jobs available to graduates in Scotland is shrinking and will, in my view, continue to shrink.’

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Since the crash in 2008 a significant number of training openings have disappeared as some of the big employers have been taken over. And the internet is also to blame, he believes, as people increasingly go online for legal services.

‘We live in a fast changing world and the legal world is no different. The challenge for many businesses is to work out what service people need of you tomorrow or next year or three years from now…so you’ve got to be changing all the time and moulding your business to meet that demand.

‘The really successful firms of the future will be legal entrepreneurs who see the opportunity to generate wealth by the delivery of legal services and not in a traditional way.’

Lorne takes on eight trainees a year and many of his team, senior partners included, are former students. He looks for hard workers but also people who will fit into what sounds like a congenial workplace. In 25 years there have only been a couple of ‘very singular individuals’ he’s had to get rid of.

‘Quite a lot of professional service firms are beset with politics but somehow we’ve managed not to have that because we’re a collegiate and inclusive and transparent firm.

‘Lawyers, in the main, are very cerebral people who can be very different,’ he says. A lot are ‘pompous and arrogant’ though they do a great job.

If he is hard on his own profession – which, he says, still hasn’t forgiven him for reforming property buying and selling with the introduction of the Home Report (another of his babies) – he is generous about others.

Politicians and civil servants, in particular, have impressed him with their commitment. He has worked with public bodies, in various roles, for 20 years and says he has learned more about leadership here than in the private sector.

Devolution has ‘absolutely worked’, he thinks. ‘Before, if you wanted Scottish legislation it would take you years to get it into Westminster…now you can affect change so much quicker.’

He probably wouldn’t have been appointed chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (‘a dream job’) if he felt uncomfortable working for the government, but his exuberance for everything the position entails is heartfelt.

‘You get to meet people trying to grow their businesses in the most beautiful part of the world and the organisation you’re in charge of helps them meet their aspirations.’

 His three years will be up in March but he would happily extend the contract, if given the chance. Although a Glaswegian, home for Lorne and his wife is in the Highlands and he spends as many weekends as possible in Gairloch. His father, who was a dentist in Renfrew, had connections to the area and Lorne moved into his parents’ house there when they died.

‘It’s on the sea and before going to work on Monday morning I have a cup of coffee on the decking and look out to the Torridons and Skye.’

But it’s not a feet up in front of the fire retreat for him and if he watches television at all it tends to be at four in the morning, thanks to insomnia. A talented sportsman in his youth, he remains an outdoors man and enjoys hill walking, fishing and sailing.

Four years ago he bought a ketch – ‘I couldn’t sail but there’s not much you can’t do if you put your mind to it’ – and has ventured, with brave friends, to the daunting waters of St Kilda.

‘It’s my favourite place on the planet…the Galapagos Islands don’t come close to St Kilda. It is the largest gannetry in the world, so when you get within five miles you can hear all these screaming birds. It’s remarkable.’

He says he’s been caught in ‘really bad weather’, a force nine gale,but realised that ‘the boat is a much more capable animal than you are. You’re down to your own limitations, not the boat’s, the boat is fine but it’s how you handle it.’

I ask him what’s more scary, being at the mercy of a storm or the sharks of the business world and he laughs. ‘Oh the boat! I’ve been doing the business for far too long.’

Lorne’s wife – the former head of the Glasgow Housing Association Taroub Zahran – is a city girl, he says, but she loves the Highlands too and when he eventually retires he would like to ‘be home in Gairloch’, not full-time but ‘certainly the summers and spring and the early autumn’. Not many months elsewhere then.

He turned 60 in July and while he has never been bothered about his age –‘I am what I am’ – he has a problem with 60: ‘It sounds like the end is nigh’. He made it clear at home that there were to be no celebrations, because his birthday was in the middle of the Commonwealth Games, for which Harper Macleod was the legal adviser.

‘So that was all agreed, I thought, and I then I came home to a huge party of friends from all over the place.’

He will most likely step down from his firm at 65, but he wants to find something else that stimulates him and admits to still being restless. ‘I don’t underestimate how much a challenge is important to me personally.’

His marriage to Taroub, last year, was his second and brought him two step sons, aged 22 and 18. ‘It’s a new life for me,’ he says, after years of being single and with no children of his own.

‘The beneficiary of that has been Harper Macleod. I’ve devoted time to it instead. If I was invited to a dinner or weekend away I would almost without exception do it and that’s a luxury most people with a family don’t have.

‘Now I don’t do anything like as many events. In Harvard [where he did a leadership course in 2000] they asked ‘how many of you are too busy’ and everyone put their hands up. Then they asked ‘how many of you do things you don’t want to do’ and everyone put their hands up. They said work out what you don’t like doing and don’t do it again. Mine was black tie dinners…sitting beside the same people from the same companies.’

Lorne may not be the reclusive loner he once was but he is content with his own company, whether on the train journeys to Gairloch or during his walks from where he lives in Glasgow’s west end to Harper Macleod across town. He likes time to ‘think, get ready and reflect’.

He says he’s lucky – in his work, in his personal life, in the chances he’s had – but he’s too modest. Like many high achievers, he has made his own luck and is now reaping the rewards.

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A rare place for steaks on Sauchiehall Street

The waitress in the Butchershop Bar & Grill, a Glasgow University medic, said it was very busy during the Commonwealth Games, with athletes from the nearby SECC as well as spectators, and the promotions for students suggest it is a popular haunt for the young. But it was subdued on the Thursday lunchtime we were there and we had a secluded corner to ourselves.

Lorne and I both started with the gin and herb infused Scottish salmon, which was faultless. He let me choose the wine and I ordered two glasses of New Zealand’s Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc – partly because you can’t really go wrong with a Malborough Sauvignon and partly because he had just dropped into the conversation that he was in New Zealand for the rugby World Cup three years ago, in his capacity as chair of the Six Nations disciplinary panel.

The Butchershop calls itself Scotland’s best steakhouse and Lorne asked for the House Signature Steak Salad, medium rare with English mustard. He said it looked nice but the meat was a bit chewy, and he didn’t quite do justice to the salad, though he pronounced that ‘fine’.

My Sun Blushed Tomato Risotto was delicious, though could perhaps have done with a little less of the balsamic vinegar.

We couldn’t manage the puddings but settled for coffee (me) and tea (English breakfast for Lorne).

Our bill for lunch was in the region of £45 and good value at that, but I would like to experience the Butchershop in full flow, which I expect is at night, and work up a bigger appetite next time. My taxi driver said he’d taken his wife there for dinner recently; it had set him back about £100 but was well worth it.

The Butchershop Bar & Grill, 1055 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, G3 7UD.