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Comment: Terry Murden

20 years ago today…a new start in business news

Terry MurdenTwenty years ago today marked the beginning of a new chapter when The Sunday Times handed me the job of broadening its business coverage in Scotland. All those years and at least three jobs later, I am still scribbling away, though the business landscape and journalism have changed significantly.

Such was the buoyancy and optimism in the newspaper industry at the time that the paper devoted two broadsheet pages in its Business section to Scottish news, features and comment. I enlisted a team of writers to support me – on occasions as many as six journalists, which is probably more than the entire staff of the Scottish edition today.

There were also contributions to the UK edition and the need to appease a prickly City Editor who could not understand why there was a need to editionise his carefully-crafted section, or why we gave so much attention to the debate on devolution “which was never going to happen”.

One reason for the revamp was to reclaim ground lost to the seven-year-old upstart Scotland on Sunday which had won plaudits for its considered and modern style. SoS, at that time in its pomp, was showing a somewhat arrogant London media that good journalism also thrived in Britain’s nether regions.

The Wapping dispute of a few years earlier was still raw within News International, and it has to be said that the anger and divisions it created spread beyond the capital. There was deep resentment towards the Murdoch titles in Scotland which made us always feel like outsiders, not helped by a right-wing editorial policy that seemed to be designed to deliberately stir up animosity with the Scots. It is one thing to pursue a point of view, but taking up cudgels against your readers and potential readers (aka customers) never seemed to me a good idea and I always felt that this approach cost the paper dearly, both in circulation and in how it was perceived in Scotland.

In those days, however, the battle between the various titles and a reactionary Scottish political elite was just a bit of pushing and shoving compared to the ferocious blows exchanged between the London and Glasgow desks of the Sunday Times. It was not unknown for London to despatch journalists to Scotland on secret missions “to show us how it should be done”, only for them to return with tails between their legs when they failed to find the “mad jocks” that the newsdesk demanded.

When the office politics allowed time to focus on the news agenda we were able to unite in producing an unbeatable package. Ironically, given Scotland’s shift toward self-governance, the country had more independently run companies in those days, many of them stock market listed: Stakis the hotelier; SMG and Scottish Radio Holdings in media. The whisky sector alone boasted a number of quoted companies including Burn Stewart, The Macallan, Highland Distilleries and Glenmorangie, all of which are now part of bigger groups.

Scotland was synonymous with the insurance industry and the names helped explain why. Scottish Equitable had just been acquired by Dutch firm Aegon, but Scottish Life, Scottish Amicable and Scottish Provident were independently managed, along with the big beasts General Accident and Standard Life, which was soon to be plunged into battle over its mutuality. Over the years most were to disappear, acquired and absorbed by bigger London-based rivals. Only recently the Scottish Life and Scottish Provident names have been rubbed out by its owner Royal London.

Few had heard of a young Ayrshire man who was selling trainers from the back of a van. Tom Hunter’s dealings the the retail tycoon Philip Green were to help him turn him into Scotland’s best-known entrepreneur, though he also went on to become one of the big losers in the banking crash when he took his eye off the ball. One other little known businessman was beginning to make his mark. Jim McColl, a Glasgow accountant, had bought a company that used to clean the boilers in steam locomotives. Who would have thought it would lead to a billion pound fortune, a Ferrari and a Bentley in the car park, and a home in Monaco? The Scottish entrepreneurs of that era were like a modern day version of the art world’s Glasgow Boys, inventive and doing their own thing. Richard Emanuel and Chris Gorman cashed in on the mobile phone craze; David Sibbald sold his software business to Cisco for £120m. As Scotland got a taste for enterprise the culture began to change, and for the better.

That first couple of years were particularly fruitful on a personal level, yielding a bumper crop of exclusive stories: the sale of Dunedin Fund Managers, the launch of Standard Life Investments, oil group Sidlaw’s break-up, Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall investing in the recently-launched Malmaison hotel chain. It made me think I must be doing something right.

Today is also the 20th anniversary of the birth of a stock market body which almost became a Scottish institution. My first job on 19 June 1995 was to attend a press conference at the former offices of the London Stock Exchange in Nelson Mandela Square, Glasgow. A new trading market for smaller companies was being launched.

Many will have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, that there was a plan for the Alternative Investment Market – a replacement for the Unlisted Securities Market – to be headquartered in Scotland. In those days, the LSE had a full-time ‘regional’ director and was much more active around the country. Basing AIM in Scotland would have helped spread the word about raising money on equity markets. In the end, centralism won the day and AIM was kept under the watchful eye of its big brother in London.

On that first day a handful of Scots companies transferred from the USM to AIM, but it never really took off north of the border, leaving many observers to wonder whether basing it in Glasgow or Edinburgh would have stimulated more interest and a more active involvement in equity markets generally.

According to BDO there are only 26 Scottish firms on AIM with a combined market value (as of earlier this month) of £1.5 billion. Baker Tilly reckons there are 34. They’re only accountants and auditors, so let’s not quibble over eight companies. Perhaps it’s the way that you count them. Whatever the number, it is disproportionately fewer than for the UK as a whole which has 1,074 companies with a combined market cap of £75.3 billion.

Almost certainly the biggest shockwave of the last 20 years was the banking crisis of 2007-09. Back in 1995 nobody would have imagined today’s situation. Even in the early 2000’s when I took over as Business Editor of Scotland on Sunday I was asked by a left-leaning colleague on the sports desk why it was not possible for the banks to be nationalised. It seemed such a bizarre question at the time that I told him not to be so silly.

Thinking back, I am reminded about how silly my former City Editor sounded when he dismissed the likelihood of Scottish devolution. It just goes to show that the only thing you can ever expect is the unexpected.

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