INTERVIEW: Graeme Bissett, serial director
‘You need trust and teamwork to make a company successful’
Graeme Bissett is in a Glasgow hotel reception and the background noise on the phone suggests he’s caught up in a party. In fact he’s between meetings and doing his level best to be heard.
Even so, he has every reason to celebrate, having just been appointed to the board of the law firm Anderson Strathern as a non-executive director.
He replaces Kevin Rennie whose term has expired. “A recruitment firm called me and we had a chat and they took the fateful decision,” he says, self-depracatingly.
Bissett has been one of the familiar faces on the non-exec circuit for the past 12 years, a journey that has introduced him to a number of Scotland’s highest achieving and brightest prospects. Blackcircles, the online tyre firm founded by Mike Welch, and Peter Taylor’s Townhouse hotel group, were two that he has had to step down from after they were sold.
“Brilliant guys and a joy to work with,” he says, stressing the well-worked adage that it is the people who matter most in any business and in the sort of company he is willing to join.
“Fundamentally, you need trust and the ability to work with the team,” he says. “This will help make it succeed. Of course you have to be happy with the business model, the market, and so on. If you get these right it can be a very fulfilling experience.”
Bissett trained as an accountant and was one of the noted Scottish Arthur Andersen team which included included Fred Hallsworth and Eric Hagman, who also continue to work Scottish and UK boardrooms. Bissett left in 1998, four years before Andersen imploded in the Enron collapse. Sir Tom Farmer invited him to join Kwik-Fit as finance director.
He says he enjoyed those days at the firm. “It was great to work alongside Tom. He was a guy you could not fail to learn from.”
But US car giant Ford’s acquisition of the Edinburgh company just a year later was to prove a unhappy experience. Ford paid £1 billion for it, but its scale was such that Bissett recalls being told that Ford made more interest on its cash deposits than it paid for the company. He found it an unwieldy organisation.
“The scale of an organisation often mitigates against entrepreneurial action. Ford was slowing things down. It was not a happy marriage,” he says.
He was briefly associated with the Edinburgh trams, having an advisory role to the long-disbanded TIE organisation that ran the controversial project on behalf of Edinburgh council.
Since then he has focused on a small portfolio of companies which currently includes the chairmanship of the Glasgow packaging company Macfarlane, where he set about restructuring the board and now sees the fruits of those changes coming through in solid figures. “It has a strong position in its market and is very innovative. It will grow organically and through acquisition and there are likely to be a few more.”
He is also a director at Jim McColl’s container business Interbulk and the Scottish Futures Trust, and a member of the court of Glasgow University.
“They say that amounts to diversity for an Edinburgh boy,” he jokes. He is talking to two or three other companies interested in hiring him.
He is due to step down from the Children 1st charity, an experience which has opened his eyes to social injustices. He prefers to keep his counsel on party politics but admits that he was delighted by the Chancellor’s decision to scrap his planned cuts to tax credits which would have hit lower income families.
“I felt very strongly about that. Reversing that decision was absolutely the right thing to do. It’s impact on a large number of citizens would have been far too severe,” he says.
He is also encouraged that the UK and Holyrood governments seem at last to be moving closer together on establishing the fiscal framework that will allow the country to move forward.
“The commercial scene is quite lively just now,” he says. Joining Andersen Strathern takes him back into the professional services category where he obviously feels comfortable and he sees a firm which is clearly focused on meeting some tough challenges that have been thrown up in the legal sector. Loss of contract work from the banks has been a particularly heavy blow.
“There have been a lot of mergers which have brought seismic change to some firms and some, unfortunately, haven’t made it,” he says.
“We have to look at the growth dynamics and firms have to be on their toes.”
He says the role of the non-executive director has evolved in so much as the hiring company – whether private, public or third sector – is now more likely to scrutinise their value.
“The days when it meant turning up once a month for a chat with the chairman over lunch have long gone,” he says, “Quite correctly, companies want to know what is being delivered.”
Education: Heriot School, Heriot Watt University (accountancy and finance)
Career highlights: trained at Arthur Andersen; Kwik-Fit; various non-executive roles including chairman of Macfarlane Plc
Is the role of the non-executive director more difficult these days?
The responsibilities are better understood rather than being more onerous. If you don’t have confidence in your ability to do the job you should be doing it.
What do you look for in a company which invites you to join it?
Trust and my ability to work with the team.
What helps you fulfil your role successfully?
I am a fan of longevity. Having the directors there for a sustained period is good for business. Nine years is long enough for a non-executive director, but there is a degree of artificiality about the recommended timescales.