Gavin Loudfoot CA: my President's Apprentice journey
"From bus stops to black tie dinners, I’ve had a great time touring the UK with Sir Brian Souter and getting involved in his numerous business interests." Gavin Loudfoot CA discusses his President's Apprentice journey.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from my ICAS President’s apprenticeship at first – except naturally a lot of abuse from my mates – but it certainly turned out a lot more enjoyable and beneficial that you might assume.
The ICAS Oversight Board @ The CA House, Edinburgh
Things kicked off with me attending the ICAS Oversight board. I know what you’re thinking, but it was actually quite interesting and surprising to hear the challenges the institute are currently facing and the dynamic solutions they are devising to counteract such issues as falling incoming student numbers due to both advances in technology and takeovers of Scottish firms.
Sir Brian is driving the remedy for this by casting the ICAS net further internationally, to great success so far. ICAS have recently signed a mutual recognition agreement with the US as well as gained traction in the Far East to be the pre-eminent qualification for aspiring accountants. The board were keen to capture a young person’s perspective and heard my opinion on their solutions, namely recognition of the technology risk recounting my experiences working as a junior in practice but also my excitement to hear the drive overseas, as it provides a world of opportunities to young accountants and consequently makes the qualification more attractive.
I appreciated Sir Brian putting himself in the shoes of the younger generation as I’m sure he has no aspirations of his own to become a practising accountant in the US, but recognises the significance of this option to millennials such as myself. At the board meeting there were also some startling disciplinary procedures being discussed, but unfortunately for you that is entirely confidential!
Souter Investments @ George Street, Edinburgh
Sir Brian then took me to Souter Investments, his private family investment office, which was of particular interest to me given I work in private equity myself. It was fascinating to see the variety of opportunities that Sir Brian is presented with, far different to the oilfield focus that I have in Aberdeen.
He is invested in everything from Biotech start-ups to retail and financial services, usually with a focus on Scotland. It was inspiring to hear about Sir Brian’s passion for the Scottish economy and it really resonates in the sort of investments he is making in the country – from a local film studio to social housing, he really does put his money where his mouth is. I was also introduced to the Archangles in Edinburgh who presented a fascinating portfolio of investment opportunities based solely in Scotland.
It was brilliant to hear the level of innovation and entrepreneurship happening in Scotland and great to see a backer like Sir Brian Souter providing capital to such worthy ventures. Sir Brian sources these wide array of investment opportunities through his capable team at Souter Investments. He prides himself on the fact that he recruits people smarter than himself, maintaining that as long as you’re not intimidated by them, you should always surround yourself with a more intelligent, collegiate team – a theme that you will see runs throughout my experiences with him.
The CA Dinner @ The Radisson Blu, Glasgow
I was also invited to join Sir Brian at the CA dinner in Glasgow, which was a great event and I particularly enjoyed catching up with the Glasgow network, which I knew from my PwC days. A highlight of the night was hearing from the ICAS Foundation students, one of which spoke on stage about the life-changing support he has received from ICAS, helping raise money on the night for such a worthy cause. The table that Sir Brian assembled certainly had some notable guests too, not least were we joined by Derek Mackay MSP who was tweeting about the event when he wasn’t being lobbied.
Burns Supper @ The Caledonian Club, London
Next up was a Burns Supper held at the Caledonian Club in Belgravia, London, often referred to as the Scottish embassy. It was a superb night meeting the London contingent of ICAS both old and new and there were a few celebrities in the room including Graeme Morrison, a former rugby player (part of the last Scotland team to beat England in 2008 I was reliably informed), who gave a thoroughly entertaining toast to the lassies. As I’ve previously touted, it was great to engage ICAS members that are outside the hub of practice in Scotland and we sat up into the wee hours dabbling in an array of whisky miniatures, which felt apt for the occasion.
Stagecoach Tours @ Swindon, Cheltenham, Oxford and the ‘Gleneagles of Wales’
The following day we embarked on a tour of the love of Sir Brian’s life, Stagecoach.
“Stagecoach are known as a robust company, in this game if you show any sign of weakness, you’re dead” he told me as we were assessing his competitors from the bridge in Swindon, which overlooked the goings on of the competing buses in the area. We continued to Newport, Wales, where Sir Brian gathered the top management of Stagecoach West for a briefing at Celtic Manor.
Sir Brian detailed that like ICAS, Stagecoach is not without its challenges. The bus industry is facing some social changes, not least the technology threats of Uber and online shopping, a generation of greater car usage and evolving working patterns. Part of Sir Brian’s strategy on tackling this is by embracing technology and applying it in the industry. His team of dynamic youngsters have come up with an app which accepts online payments and even tracks buses much like Uber, and I believe it could revolutionise bus travel.
Further, Stagecoach plan to be at the forefront of the switch to electric buses, as soon as the technology reaches the inflexion point of affordability and eco-friendliness. In addition, Sir Brian embraces engagement in social media, and recalls a time decades earlier in Stagecoach when they were debating whether or not they should answer telephone calls, in his eyes the answer is as obvious now as it was then when it comes to the question of social media.
Studying the operations and numbers of the bus companies, it’s clear that Sir Brian understands the business well and ensures he retains profitability in such a challenging industry. Sir Brian explains that you need to act like a surgeon when structuring the businesses, by removing problems sharply and retaining then improving the performing aspects. I’ve found that when faced with the decision to “Make a Kirk or a mill o’it”, as he would say, Sir Brian has a knack of selecting the right option.
Sir Brian is happy to be the entrepreneur and not the emperor – empowering young, up-and-coming managers in his companies. His faith in them is returned in loyalty and this is evident throughout Stagecoach where managers have dedicated their life’s work to the company and spent time all round the country taking responsibility of numerous branches, making personal sacrifices to ensure their success.
Burns Supper @ Edinburgh Castle
My final stop this time around was Edinburgh Castle, and what a special setting that was. It was a fantastic event and again I enjoyed meeting some interesting CAs who work in some impressive roles, further highlighting the wealth of knowledge within the ICAS network. We were treated by an unexpected and delightful surprise of some singing by a young girl from St Mary’s Music School and Sir Brian rhymed off a humorous rendition of the lesser known Burns poem ‘Willie Wastle’s Wife’.
The night was rounded off by our outgoing CEO, Anton Colella, bringing out his acoustic guitar and treating us to a performance of the Baird’s ‘Auld Lang Syne’. I find this fitting as Anton’s swan song as he passes the baton on to our CEO-elect, Bruce Cartwright.
That’s all from me just now - stay tuned for episode two of this blog to be released in the coming months detailing the second half of my apprenticeship with Sir Brian Souter.