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Business comment

Local priorities must not be lost

June 14 2017

Concerns, I have a few. After what Malcolm Tucker could only describe as an omnishambles of an election, Theresa May and her acolytes are trying their damndest to cling on to power. But whether that is in the country’s best interests or their own is very much a subject for debate. From a business perspective, the political machinations at Westminster are much more than a distracting sideshow. Make no mistake, instability at the highest levels of government and uncertainty about our future economic path will be the dominant subject in boardrooms up and down the country right now. And when that’s the case, a period of lower investment, slower growth, fewer new jobs and economic morass often follows. Only time will tell if that is the case here, but with the Brexit negotiations so close at hand it is hard to imagine our large corporates being happy to dispense with their largesse right now. If I were them, I too would be looking at the rainy days ahead and putting aside some pennies, especially when the UK’s negotiating strategy is so ill-defined and our hand so weak. The Brexit vote left the UK economically isolated and I accept that Theresa May has had to play the cards as they were dealt. But by calling a disastrous election, she let her guard down and handed the other high stakes poker players round the EU negotiating table an unintended advantage at a crucial moment. It was a spectacular own goal and one I fear the UK may rue long after Theresa May, David Davis and Michael Gove are consigned to being names in modern studies textbooks. Away from the Brexit negotiations, there are other domestic priorities I hope don’t get lost in this political whirlwind. The key one for this part of the world is the Tay Cities Deal, the UK and Scottish Government-backed investment package that is so vital to the long-term prosperity of Dundee, Perth, Angus and north-east Fife. City deals are already providing investment and jobs in other areas of Scotland but until the ink is dry on the Tay Cities package then none of us should rest easy. The economic health of this region depends on it. ghuband@thecourier.co.uk

Business comment

Trade will go on, come what May

January 18 2017

The settled will of the people of Great Britain is to follow the path of Brexit. I have always viewed the outcome of last June’s EU referendum as a collective rush of blood to the head but, regardless of my view, the only practical way forward is to make the best of the situation that presents itself. But it is fair to say we didn’t get off to the most promising of starts on the Brexit journey. The political headless chicken dance that followed June’s vote will surely go down in the history books as one of the UK’s lowest moments. Only the Trump circus across the Pond saved the UK from greater ridicule as our political paymasters did the hokey cokey, turned around and promptly exited stage left. But that’s irrelevant now - Theresa May is the last woman standing, Brexit is happening and and we have reached a make or break junction in the road for this country. Firstly, forget everything you’ve heard from the politicos and the massed ranks of flannalysts who have spent months telling us what they think Brexit might be without any firm knowledge of what it will actually be. Forget hard and soft Brexit and, please, forget the red, white and blue Brexit – that ridiculous pat phrase Mrs May resorted to using when neither she nor her Whitehall mandarins had a handle on what Brexit actually meant. And now you have erased the background noise, listen up as we are now getting to the meat and bones of what a Brexit break up means for Britain. In the biggest speech of her life yesterday, Mrs May outlined plans for a clean break from Europe and to let the UK take its chances as a truly independent nation on the global stage. Her position is perhaps the truest reflection of what the people of the UK voted for on June 23. As she has repeatedly stated, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and it looks like Mrs May is bent on dispensing with the main EU crutches upon which we currently rely. That means a full withdrawal from the single market into which almost 50% of UK exported goods flows in anticipation of the establishment of a new, reciprocal, free trade agreement. It also means an abandonment of the current customs union that allows tariff free trade into the EU - again with a view to agreeing a new relationship. These issues and many others besides will be difficult to manage and will, inevitably, bring economic pain, frustration and uncertainty. But Brexit is not a one-way street. The decisions made by Number 10 in the coming months will be as closely watched by business leaders in in Berlin, Paris and Rome as they are by their counterparts in Britain’s boardrooms. Remember, the German’s don’t want to see car exports to a highly lucrative market jeopardised and luxury goods makers in France and Italy want to maintain access to high-flying customers in London and beyond. Whatever emerges from the Brexit wash, what is certain is that business will go on and the UK will continue to sell into Europe and vice versa. It is a trade link that will not be severed, but may be significantly interrupted in the years to come. Mrs May is choosing to view that as an opportunity to broaden the UK’s global trade horizons - and the US under President Trump may well provide shelter in the Brexit storm. The immediate reaction to Mrs May’s speech was interesting though. North of the border - where First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly warned of consequences from a bad Brexit deal - the response from the business community was uncharacteristically muted. Business owners simply want to get on with the day-to-day and, for them, Brexit remains a distant sideshow. It is business as usual. Come what May.

Business news

Business must be at top of Brexit agenda

March 29 2017

Senior Scottish business leaders have called for the economy to be the top priority in Brexit negotiations. Scottish Chambers of Commerce chief executive Liz Cameron said the UK Government needed to listen to the private sector if it was to return a good deal. “The Scottish Chambers of Commerce network has been clear in terms of our focus on these negotiations,” Ms Cameron said. “Business wants to see tariff-free access to the EU single market, with regulatory barriers kept to a minimum; we need urgent clarity of the status of EU workers in the UK and UK workers in the EU; and we need confirmation on the future of tax legislation, especially VAT, and positive outcomes on negotiations on continued access to, or the replacement of, EU funding mechanisms. “There is a wealth of business experience that must be tapped if the UK is to achieve the best possible deal over the coming years and both Governments must continue engaging and involving business in this process, as it finally gets underway. “Equally, while Brexit is vitally important to Scottish businesses, our governments cannot afford to lose sight of domestic issues.” The Federation of Small Businesses Scotland said the move to trigger Article 50 and formally begin the extrication process would have a “profound impact” on Scottish firms. “For many in the business community, like the micro-brewer who trades overseas or hotelier who employs non-UK EU workers, there are concerns that need addressed,” FSB Scottish policy convener Andy Willox said. “In particular, the right to remain for EU citizens must be guaranteed at the earliest opportunity. “As debate opens up about Scotland’s future direction, it will be important that the small business voice isn’t lost.” CBI Scotland director Hugh Aitken said the UK needed some “early wins.” “The first six months are crucial as the UK heads into these challenging and unprecedented negotiations.” he said. “Most welcome of all would be the immediate guarantee of the right to remain for EU citizens here and UK nationals in Europe, which all governments agree is desirable.” The Scotch Whisky Association said the growth of whisky exports will be a “litmus test” for Brexit’s success. Acting CEO Julie Hesketh-Laird said: “During these discussions on such a major change, the success of the Scotch Whisky industry should not be taken for granted. “As a major manufacturer and exporter, the continued growth of Scotch will be a litmus test of the success of the UK’s departure from the EU.”

Business comment

A long and rocky economic road

June 21 2017

No one should underestimate the change happening in our region. This morning, an audience of a couple of hundred will gather at Dundee’s Apex hotel for the sixth Dundee Economic Summit. I have attended each of the previous five and, before the fact, could probably give you a fairly accurate run down of what will be said, who will be saying it and who will be listening. That may sound disparaging, but it is not meant to be so. It is actually a compliment as stable economic development leadership over many years has served Dundee well. The city and the wider region is undergoing a period of change not seen since the jute mills first started belching out their acrid grey smoke more than a century ago. Mill owners like the Baxters and the Cairds made huge fortunes for themselves and provided mass employment for a town that previously struggled for a place on the map. Jute was the making of Dundee as a city – the huge spike in population in the years following the opening of the mills tells you that alone – but it was a messy, difficult and imperfect all-eggs-in-one-basket solution to the city’s many economic ills. When jute fell, Dundee also fell and you can argue it is still recovering. It is in that regard that today’s economic summit should be viewed. As I see it, Dundee’s rebirth began as the RRS Discovery arrived back in the firth of Tay. It brought a change in mindset and a determination to drag the city and the wider region encompassing it – and the standard of living of its citizens – up by the bootstraps. Dundee’s new economic ascent began from a low starting point and it has been a long and rocky road since – not least yesterday when Lloyds Banking Group announced it was axing 252 much-needed and valuable contact centre jobs in the city. It is a grievous blow for the workers and one that will take a long time to recover from. But we must remember we still have a diverse and vibrant local economy with stand-out successes in the life sciences and games sectors. No one at the economic summit will try to argue this region is anything like the finished article. It won’t be when the V&A is open. It won’t be when we have a Tay Cities Deal signed, sealed and delivered. But despite huge bumps in the road such as that dealt by Lloyds Banking Group yesterday, what is plain for all to see is the progress that has been made in a relatively short time frame. Dundee has gone from a forgotten and neglected city to one at the forefront of minds. It is a city that now garners envious glances. That’s a position that was inconceivable even 15 years ago. Today’s summit will go over some familiar ground and the converted will be preached to once more. But if you see that as an indulgence, it is one that can be forgiven as Dundee and the wider city region looks forward to better times ahead. ghuband@thecourier.co.uk

Business news

Social investment boost welcomed

November 26 2016

A Scottish fund specialising in social enterprise investment has welcomed tax changes designed to boost the sector. As part of his Autumn Statement, Chancellor Philip Hammond moved to raise the Social Investment Tax Relief (SITR) ceiling to £1.5 million from a threshold of £293,000 over three years. Thomas Gillan, chief financial officer at Social Investment Scotland, said it was a “significant boost.” “We have always argued that a buoyant social enterprise sector simply cannot sustain its growth without adequate capital to meet an increase in funding demand,” Mr Gillen said. “For the social investment sector, this has meant looking beyond traditional institutional, government and public sector funding sources and tapping into a wider pool of social investment capital. “The fact that charities and social enterprises have already raised £3.4m since the introduction of SITR should not be underestimated. “Its success to date demonstrates an appetite amongst investors to see their money put to good use.” The changes followed two successful social enterprise events held as part of Fife Business Week. More than 120 people took part in a funding event at the Fife Renewables Innovation Centre and a social enterprise themed conference at Kirkcaldy’s Adam Smith theatre. Conference attendee Thomas McAlister of UnLtd said: “ It was great to see so many social entrepreneurs and support agencies come together to network and learn from each other. “I met innovative social entrepreneurs and hope to be able to support some of them with investment and support through UnLtd Scotland’s awards programme.”

Business news

SSE chief’s pay packet soars

June 19 2017

The chief executive of energy giant SSE, who recently hit out at proposals to save consumers £100-a-year by capping bills, has been awarded a 72% pay rise. The hike, which takes Alistair Phillips-Davies’ earnings for 2017 to £2.92m from £1.7million last year, has been condemned as “absolutely outrageous” by a consumer campaign group. SSE, which increased the profit margin it makes on household bills from 6.2% to 6.9% in the 2016-17 financial year, more than doubled its annual pre-tax profits during the period to £1.5billion, according to results published last month. The company said it recognised executives were paid “substantial sums,” but added it was “disciplined in its approach to pay”. Mr Phillips-Davies’ pay for the year to March 31 was revealed in SSE’s annual report. In addition to a £20,000 increase in his salary to £844,000, his annual bonus more than doubled to £910,000. He also received £644,000 under a long-term performance share plan and a £502,000 contribution to his pension. SSE’s financial director Gregor Alexander also saw his pay soar from £1.3 million to £2.2mi in the same period. Mr Phillips-Davies challenged election proposals by the Conservatives and Labour to cap standard variable tariffs, which it was claimed see householders paying a total of £1.4 billion over the odds for energy. In an article published last month, he said: “As a major energy supplier we believe customers’ best interests is served by competition, not caps.” Of the big six energy suppliers SSE has, at 91%, the highest proportion of customers on standard variable tariffs. In April the company warned consumers to expect their bills to go up by around 7%. Campaigning collective consumer switch company The Big Deal took to social media to airs its fury at the chief executive’s pay rise. The organisation wrote: “SSE put their prices up then give their CEO a £1.2 million pay rise. That’s a 72% increase. Absolutely outrageous.” Will Hodson of The Big Deal described it as a “slap in the face for SSE’s millions of customers.” In a statement, SSE said: “We recognise executives are paid substantial sums in line with their responsibilities, but at SSE executive remuneration is strongly linked to performance and length of service and the company has been and always will be disciplined in its approach to pay. “We would encourage people to read the remuneration report in full.”

Business comment

Mackay’s tax move ‘potentially damaging’ for Scotland says SCC chief

December 28 2017

In appraising a Scottish budget, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce applies one criterion above all others: 'Does it make Scotland a more attractive place to do business?' Our belief is that Scotland’s devolved powers should be used to create a competitive environment, one that gets noticed on a global stage and allows business and inward investors to flourish. Without this environment, Scotland will struggle to generate the wealth to build the efficient infrastructure, public services and social support that the nation expects. The above assumption puts us in close alignment with the Scottish Government, which, according to this month’s Budget document, sees “boosting competitiveness and tackling inequality” as “mutually supporting pillars.” Although Derek Mackay’s Budget speech to the Scottish Parliament did not make competitiveness an overriding theme, his draft budget contains many references and some concrete changes that showed his awareness of the need to be responsive to changes in the UK business market. For example, he made changes to non-domestic rate uplifts, and to reliefs for Land and Building Transactions Tax, changes that will help would-be investors, performing a due diligence exercise, to conclude that Scotland’s many advantages were not cancelled out by uncompetitive business costs. Other spending announcements, for example on the National Manufacturing Institute of Scotland and the Scottish National Investment Bank, as well as on the development agencies, were presented as yielding potential competitive advantage. On income tax, the Scottish Chambers supports lower taxes for the lower paid, and notes the Fraser of Allander Institute’s objective analysis that everyone earning less than £26,000 will pay less tax in 2018/19 than they would have done previously. The Chambers urged caution about differentiating personal taxes in the UK context on the grounds that it marks Scotland down, even marginally, as the location where middle and higher earners pay more tax. Mitigating the risks of such a reputation would require stellar countervailing attractions in the business environment. In Scotland, such attractions are still in the realm of aspiration rather than reality, our unspectacular achievement in superfast broadband roll-out being one example. Free university fees, toll-free bridges and lack of prescription charges are attractive offers, but they are unlikely to be the only considerations of, say, a multinational company choosing between Glasgow and Manchester for their new UK headquarters. And given the proportion of the total income tax take paid by higher earners, we need more of them to move their tax domicile north of the border. The Scottish Government’s new income tax rate proposals were certainly modest. The sums to be raised, calculated at £164m, sit as not much more than a rounding error in the context of a £30bn-plus budget. But they carry with them the expectation that the differentiation will increase as Mr Mackay or his successors face pressures in future. Annual Budget announcements are in part branding exercises. While the budget sought to signal progressive purposes to a domestic market, using these new powers to increase tax risks collateral damage, both to Scotland’s national and international profile. Despite the modesty of Mr Mackay’s income tax changes, SCC remains of the view that the establishment of new bands and new rates builds towards a simple message: that Scotland could be perceived as the highest taxed part of the UK. Whatever the other qualities associated with our country, that message is potentially damaging.

Business comment

Bragging rights must be used

November 2 2016

On Saturday night, something magical happened at the Apex City Quay Hotel. Before idle minds wander, the event I am referring to is the Courier Business Awards - this newspaper’s annual celebration of local business life. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNFo9uDS5BM Now you’d expect me to say it was a marvellous event – and believe me it was – but the magic for me was not in the obvious crowning of our winners. It wasn’t the glitz or the glamour and it wasn’t even the oratory skills of our host Gyles Brandreth - as remarkable as they are. The magic for me was in the chatter, the buzz, the excitement in the room about the local business scene here in east central Scotland. What we had was hundreds of committed advocates of the economy in Tayside and Fife all talking about the future; about growth, about jobs, about putting this area firmly on the economic map. There were new connections being made, old ones being greased and there was a frisson in the air that I’ve only rarely witnessed elsewhere. And, brilliantly, we were not afraid to tell the world about what is happening right here on the banks of the Tay, Forth and Esk. To see #CourierBizAwards trending on Twitter alongside national obsessions like Strictly Come Dancing and X Factor was a surreal moment for me, but absolutely fantastic for this area. For far too many years the approach has been to keep the tins hats on and not make a fuss. But the Business Awards and events like Fife Business Week and Perth and Kinross Business and Enterprise Month - both of which are happening this month - are finally breaking down those barriers. Why would we not want to tell the world that the magic ingredient in the ubiquitous Ventolin asthma inhaler is made in Montrose? Why would we not be proud that seven million Michelin tyres are made in Dundee each year? Why would we not shout from the rooftops about Arbroath headquartered Journeycall - a firm that keeps London and much of the country moving with its transport sector-based contact centre solutions? Why would we hide the fact that Angus-based Soil Essentials is harnessing digital technologies to improve agriculture productivity, or the fact that Blairgowrie’s Davidsons Chemist is by Royal Appointment. Why would we not celebrate our incredibly vibrant digital gaming sector and the fact that a multi-million pound industry fund dedicated to fostering the next generation of talent is based right here in Dundee. What stops us celebrating the achievements of our fantastic small and growth business base – companies like Crosbie Matthew in Kirkcaldy that form the backbone of our economy? And why don’t we embrace and applaud companies like Fife’s Peel Tech as they introduce innovative products to the market? I suspect the reason is simple - the people of these parts are naturally self-deprecating. We’re just not a boastful lot. I hope that is changing as, if Saturday night taught me anything, it is that we have a lot to boast about. Tayside and Fife has worked incredibly hard to earn its bragging rights. We should not be afraid to use them.

Business news

Fife paper bag supplier ‘lovin’ it’ after winning £35m McDonald’s deal

May 31 2017

An historic Fife manufacturing company which produces more than two billion paper bags each year has secured a £35 million contract with McDonald’s. Kirkcaldy based Smith Anderson Group is the fast food giant’s oldest UK-based supplier, having first provided the burger chain with bags in the mid-1970s. The company is now celebrating after agreeing to extend its supply relationship with McDonald’s for another three years following a competitive tender process. The group – which has been operating for 158 years and remains in private hands – produces more than 10 million paper bags ever single day at its purpose built headquarters at Rosslyn Commerce Park, Mitchleston Industrial Estate, Fife. Over half that number - more than five million in total - are bound for McDonald’s, although the company also supplies bags for a number of other well known brands including ASDA, Caffe Nero, Starbucks, Pret a Manger, KFC and Burger King. Chief executive Michael Longstaffe said he was delighted Smith Anderson’s long relationship with McDonald’s was to continue till at least 2020. In addition to the UK, bags produced by Smith Anderson are also supplied into Ireland, the Netherlands and a number of other small European markets. The new contract will extend that reach further, with Fife-manufactured bags also being supplied into McDonald’s operations in Poland and in surrounding central eastern European countries. In addition, McDonald’s Europe has agreed to support a new joint venture that Smith Anderson has sought out with a major packaging supplier. The venture will be based in the south of Poland and staff taken on to man the new facility will be trained up in Kirkcaldy. The group said the expansion of its operations in eastern Europe will add an additional £2m to its annual revenue base. Mr Longstaffe said Smith Anderson was pleased to have reached a successful conclusion to a “complex” negotiation that first started last year. “This agreement was a great deal more complex than in previous years and McDonald’s are ever more demanding of their top flight supply chain,” Mr Longstaffe said. “Smith Anderson is thrilled to have secured this contract, most especially the European expansion and the benefits these deliver to shareholders and all of our 205 hardworking staff into 2020.” While the McDonald’s contract is positive news, the group said it continued to face challenges. It highlighted legacy costs in relation to its now closed defined benefit pension scheme and the uplift to pay packets from the introduction of the National Living Wage among the issues it was having to deal with. However, Mr Longstaffe said he was confident of the firm’s outlook in the medium term. “The future looks ever brighter for Smith Anderson, who in partnership with Barclays, have bought forward on a number of positive foreign exchange positions, to secure hard fought margin within recently won international contracts as far forward as 2019,” he said. “We are not looking for ‘quick wins’, but longer term secure and sustainable growth, from which we will all benefit.”

Business news

Captains of industry owe debt to trainer Alan

March 31 2017

An Angus engineer who helped shape the careers of thousands of young apprentices is stepping down from his role after almost four decades. Alan Swankie has been with Arbroath Angus Training Group (ATG) for 39 years of its 51 year history, and overseen the technical upskilling of scores of upcoming mechanical, electronic and eletrical engineers. ATG is intrinsically linked to the North Sea oil and gas sector and has given a start to numerous future captains of industry who then exported skills acquired in Arbroath to major energy basins around the world. Mr Swankie joined ATG in 1978, the year before the training group moved to its current premises in Arbroath’s Catherine Street. The workshop was officially opened in 1979 by RAF flying ace, Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader. Mr Swankie – who joined ATG as a turning instructor and later served as operations and training manager before finally becoming managing director in 2007 – said it had been a pleasure to set so many young people on their way. “It will be a very strange feeling to leave ATG after 39 years, but I feel the time is right for me to step down,” Mr Swankie said. “The company is very highly regarded and has an excellent reputation, which is due to the dedication of all staff who are passionate about, and committed to, getting the best out of each year’s intake of apprentices.” Mr Swankie has worked with ATG’s incoming managing director Sam Greer for the past month and is confident the facility is in good hands. “It’s been hugely gratifying to give young apprentices a platform for developing their skills and knowledge and seeing them progress throughout their careers,” he said. “I know that Sam will be a fantastic MD for the company and I look forward to watching the business grow further as she brings new ideas and fresh approaches to the table. “I’m extremely grateful to have worked with such a fantastic team at ATG and wish everyone the very best for the future.”