Networking organisations are ten-a-penny in Scotland, but Alexander Lamley is doing something completely different with Connections, as Peter Ranscombe finds out.
It’s a situation that will be all-too familiar to entrepreneurs. You’re sitting across the desk from your accountant, lawyer or other advisor and you’ve just told them all about your latest big idea. But instead of them demonstrating the same entrepreneurial spirit to match your own, they just give you a conservative shrug of their shoulders, wring their hands a bit, and then ask if there’s a less-risky way of doing business.
Alexander Lamley is out to change all that. As chief executive of the Connections networking group, he’s hoping that a wee bit of that magic entrepreneurial dust rubs off on the professional advisors who he brings together to meet business owners. “I want to take some of the enthusiasm and passion that you see within the entrepreneurial community and inject it into the professions,” he explains.
Connections began life as an organisation set up by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and the Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet (WS Society), which ran events just for accountants, bankers and lawyers.
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“I was a member of Connections while I was working as a junior assistant to the senior partner at a high street law firm in Perth and I used to come down to Edinburgh after work for events because that’s where I wanted to do my traineeship,” remembers, Lamley, now 30. “I thought it was a good set of events, but it was all very soft. I started to think ‘What would I do with this?’ but, by the time I moved down to Edinburgh full-time, Connections had disappeared because the leadership had left.
“I went to the old committee and told them that I had an idea for what I could do with Connections, but the WS Society decided that it didn’t want to continue supporting the organisation and it couldn’t give me the membership lists for data protection reasons. So I had to start again from scratch.”
RBS no longer wanted to be involved, but the ACCA continued to support Lamley’s idea. “I went to the Law Society of Scotland and asked if it would become a ‘parent’ of Connections,” Lamley laughs. “I thought ‘parent’ sounded better than ‘sponsor’ and because I told the society ‘I’m not going to ask for money just now, but further down the line I might knock on the door one night and ask for £40.”
With support from the ACCA and the Law Society, Lamley was able to get Connections back off the ground in January 2012. While the name may have been the same, the remit for the organisation had completely changed, encompassing professional advisors from myriad disciplines and bringing them together with entrepreneurs and business owners.
His first event attracted 140 participants in Edinburgh and introduced the concept of ‘Misconceptions’, which has gone onto become the network’s signature format and is repeated each year. The gathering involves a panel of five speakers – for example, an accountant, a banker, an entrepreneur, a lawyer, and a public relations consultant – who each get five minutes to talk about their misconceptions about what one of the others does for a living.
“I got to indulge in some stage management,” smiles Lamley, who trod the boards as a student actor at venues including the National Theatre in London, the Lyceum in Edinburgh and the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen amid training to become a lawyer.
“I had each of the guests come up on stage and do their five minutes in turn. Then I got each of them to rebuff and defend their discipline – they couldn’t pitch either themselves as an individual or their firm – it had to be about the discipline.”
Events such as ‘Misconceptions’ are designed to break down the barriers between disciplines. “I’d like to see the professional advisors learning from one other more than they currently do,” Lamley explains. “Professional development is done in silos and the professionals tend to be inward facing. Connections is an attempt to get them more outward facing and mixing.
“It’s not just about sharing knowledge; it should also increase referral business between the professions and on a much more efficient basis as well. If you actually know what the different types of accountant are then you know who to talk to when your client needs that
Other formats used by Connections include dinners, guest lectures and cocktail parties, with each event being followed by facilitated networking, with Lamley acting as a match-making service for entrepreneurs or business owners who want to be introduced to bankers, lawyers or other potential advisors.
During Connections’ first two years, all of the events ran for free, with the network having now switched to a pay-as-you-go model, so guests part with cash to come along to the events that interest them. Connections expanded into Glasgow in January 2013 and is now preparing to move into London, with its ‘Misconceptions’ launch event scheduled to take place at the Vintners’ Hall on 21 March.
During its first three years, the network held 23 events, with its mailing list now standing at around 1,200 members. This year the network aims to put on around six events each in Glasgow and Edinburgh and a further four in London.
“Unlike some of the other groups out there at the moment, we’re not an age-limited organisation; we’re not a young drinking clique by any means,” Lamley points out. “We have members aged from 18 all the way through to people in their 60s who are retired and are looking for non-executive director positions. So we have youthful exuberance meeting wisdom and experience.”
Having disbanded the committee from the previous incarnation of Connections and taken to running the events on his own, by the time the network had a presence in Edinburgh and Glasgow, Lamley decided he needed to bring a more professional air to the new-look organisation. He brought on board Russell Dalgleish – advisor, entrepreneur, investor and founder of Exolta Capital Partners – as a non-executive director and consultant Kendra Byers as event operations manager. They have since been joined by volunteer Sara Brouwer as events coordinator to help with this year’s push into London.