INTERVIEW: Ross Martin, SCDI
‘Fifty per cent of our exports are driven by 50 companies. It’s an issue.’
It’s the first morning of the first full week of the Forth Road Bridge closure and for Ross Martin it provides a glaring example of one of Scotland’s most pressing needs.
“It highlights how transport infrastructure and digital technology need to work together. If we had better wireless technology it would enable people to work anywhere,” he says.
“It is a little too early to know what impact the bridge closure might have. The resilience programme will deal with point to point travel, as will the rail network, but it is the little arterial routes, getting from Fife to Livingston, for instance, that will be a challenge.”
It is timely that the road bridge shutdown coincides with the publication this week of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry’s Blueprint for Growth and Prosperity. Among its demands is the establishment of “tech hubs” – places where people can share technology space.
Martin, chief executive of SCDI, says the report is the culmination of two years of consultation and research into what the country needs in order to tackle its woeful productivity record. The organisation’s electic membership, embracing businesses, local authorities, trade unions, faith groups and charitable organisations, has reached a consensus on the main issues and, as such, it is a sort of mission statement for the SCDI itself.
“It is core to who we are and what we are seeking to do,” says Martin. “Actually, reaching agreement was easier than any of us anticipated. There is a broad recognition that productivity is the number one aim.”
But it is not the only objective. He is unequivocal about another of the country’s weaknesses. “Internationalisation is an embarrassing mountain to climb,” he says, pointing accusingly at Scotland’s woefully small number of exporters. “Fifty per cent of our exports are driven by 50 companies,” he states. “It is an issue but also a massive opportunity for growth and it will be one of the points that should be raised during the debate on EU membership.”
Martin began work on the SCDI blueprint shortly after taking up the job in 2013 following several years working in public policy areas. He was a high school teacher for four years and came to public prominence as a senior councillor, chairing the Lothian & Borders police authority before spending four years as deputy leader of West Lothian Council.
His job these days involves working with, and trying to corral the often diverse views of those who now occupy some of these roles.
He admits that SCDI has had to reinvigorate itself in recent years after questions were asked about its continued relevance. Since its formation in 1931 there has been a proliferation of other business organisations for every conceivable sector, all representing their various interests. There was a brief moment in the late 1990s when there was talk of it being engulfed by one or other of these groups, if only for practical monetary reasons. Member organisations were beginning to question the fees they were paying and what they were getting for their money.
The new blueprint harks back to its founding duty “to examine and consider impartially the industrial, commercial and economic problems with which the country is faced for the time being; to endeavour to arrive at a solution to these problems and, where necessary, to obtain from Parliament such legislation as may be required to give effect to the conclusions reached by the Council”.
As such it marks a firm statement of its intention to remain relevant and at the centre of public policy debate.
“Its uniqueness is that it is in all sectors and all geographies,” says Martin. “It is true to say there were some gaps in both and we have been working to fill both.”
Membership, he says, is up as the team has “rolled up its sleeves” and got stuck into some practical issues.
“We have been determined to show that there is value in what we do.”
Age: 52 (on 9 December)
Education: Heriot Watt University (Physics); Moray House College; Harvard Business School
Career Highlights: High school teacher, Cowdenbeath; councillor, Lothian Region and West Lothian; director, Scottish Forum for Modern Government, RGU, Aberdeen; Policy director, Centre for Scottish Public Policy; chief executive, SCDI
What irritates you?
People’s unwillingness to take calculated risks. It is a feature of the economy. When people do take risks they can make change happen quickly.
What would you like the government to do?
I’d both governments to work more closely together and to recognise there is a common economic platform.
Who has inspired you?
My mother. It is a story to be told over a beer.