Reflections on an entrepreneurial journey

Reflections on an entrepreneurial journey

John Anderson, the former chief executive of the Entrepreneurial Exchange, has moved into a more academic role at Strathclyde Business School. He talks to Ken Symon about the useful learning

Lunch with BQ on a day when your father’s obituary has appeared in The Herald is perhaps not the most auspicious timing and perhaps led to John Anderson, director of the Hunter for Entrepreneurship at Strathclyde Business School, being in a particularly reflective mood.

Given Anderson’s ‘typically Scottish professional background’, the fact that his father was a leading accountant with the then firm of Thomson McLintock and his inherited aptitude for numbers it was little surprise that the son followed the father into accountancy.

He also followed his father’s advice in going to work in London where Anderson senior felt he missed out on a lot of mergers and acquisition work that he could have had if he had moved south.

The other piece of counsel was “if you can get to the States where they have the highest standard of professionalism in accounting,” a view, which John Anderson chuckles, was “highly ironic given what happened with Enron etc.” He followed both bits of advice going to London in 1986 and to Chicago the following year.

It was when he was in America working with Ernst & Whinney (forerunner to Ernst & Young) that he caught the entrepreneurial ‘bug’ which was to define his career. Because of the interest he had shown while there he was sent on a three-day course in Cleveland with Babson College, the leading US exponent of entrepreneurship education.

It was a light bulb moment for John Anderson. “I said, ‘That’s what I want to do’. It was as clear as that. In an instant.”

It would lead to a change of direction from the route to partner that he had in front of him. “I was going to do the BP job in London – one client for two years – I would have made partner, lived in Surrey, got a train into Waterloo every day and do very nicely thank you. But I thought ‘do I want to bring up a family in Surrey? I want to come home.”

He worked in the firm’s Glasgow office where his approach began attracting more entrepreneurial clients including David Sibbald who was then building communications software business Atlantech Technologies, which was sold to Cisco Systems in 2000.

“I went with David on that journey,” he says. He was also contributing a monthly Traiblazers column to The Herald newspaper that highlighted entrepreneurs who were innovating in the way they went about their business.

This gave him exposure to a whole range of new thinking on business that he chose to study in more depth when Ernst & Young (as the firm had become) put him through an MBA at Strathclyde University.

He produced what was essentially an approach to targeting entrepreneurial businesses that was not to take off at the time but would provide the seeds for what became the UK’s Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year programme. But his initial approach was rejected. He says now: “I was astonishingly naïve about making change happen in a large organisation.”

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So he took his business plan, reformed it and took it to rival firm Price Waterhouse where he set up their entrepreneurial services practice. He worked in a number of different roles including for Grant Thornton before he says he ‘retired’ from his professional life aged 40.

He was then doing management accounts for the Entrepreneurial Exchange and he felt that from his exposure there, all was not right with an organisation that was meant to be about entrepreneurs sharing experience, not a business development tool where people were trying to sell to each other.

Anderson suggested to Exchange chairman Sir Tom Hunter that he work full time for the organisation seeking to build its brand and develop its role beyond the existing events-based programme.

He started working for the Exchange three days a week, an arrangement that allowed him to develop other business interests. “When I took it on Sir Tom Hunter said this will take a while I want you to commit to five years. I said ‘Can we review it in three.’ I was there for 12,” he says.

Anderson left the Entrepreneurial Exchange quietly in September though it was marked properly at the formal dinner in November at which the Exchange joined with the Saltire Foundation to form Entrepreneurial Scotland. At the dinner Anderson was given a lifetime achievement award. “There were a lot of tears that day too,” he says.

His role at the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship comes as he has developed a different approach to entrepreneurship from his previous thinking. “Start-ups are fantastic,” he says. “Entrepreneurship, however, is not just about start-ups, it’s about growth and that’s whether you start a business, whether you buy a business, do a management buy – out, buy – in or whatever or inherit it.”

One of the fruits of this new approach is a programme at the Hunter Centre focusing on an entrepreneurial approach to the family business sector. Anderson highlights the reflections of Marie Mickel on the five generations of Mactaggart & Mickel, which she described in one of a series of family business events at the Strathclyde Business School talks as “inter-generational entrepreneurialism.”

Each succeeding generation built on the business they had inherited and took it to a new level of growth - the firm’s original founder started to realise there was an ambition for home ownership not just social housing, then there were improvements in construction technique - each generation has built on a platform to innovate.

Anderson says wryly: “It’s quite contrary to the idea that you have the entrepreneurial innovator in the first generation, the second generation sort of steadies the ship and the third generation buggers it all up for everybody – clogs to clogs in three generations.”

The Business School’s Growth Advantage programme he describes as the first core growth programme for ambitious growth orientated entrepreneurs from a Scottish business school.
He says there were a number of such programmes in England such as the Goldman Sachs 10,000 programme, the lead programme at Lancaster and a similar one at Cranfield but there was nothing of its kind in Scotland.

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The programme developed with the support of Santander Corporate and Commercial takes a cohort of 15 entrepreneurs through four two-day programmes over a 10-month period.

The fact that it is scheduled over four Friday-Saturdays means that the entrepreneurs only have to have four weekdays away from their business.

Anderson is delighted that the course is now up and running and that Sir Tom Hunter is going to do a closing contribution to the first programme. Another programme that the Hunter Centre is going to introduce is a new approach to developing and professionalising sales management.

While Professor Eleanor Shaw, professor of entrepreneurship and head of the Hunter Centre, ensures the teaching and research at the centre are kept at the highest quality, John Anderson will build and maintain the centre’s links with entrepreneurial companies in Scotland and further afield.

“I don’t think Santander would have come to us if it had just been academic, without the contact with entrepreneurial businesses” he says.

“The idea is that I am someone who is not tied down by a research commitment or a teaching commitment. I don’t think it has quite been done this way outside the Hunter Centre.”

Once again John Anderson is breaking the mould and has come a long way from his ‘typically Scottish professional background’.