Sir Brian Souter CA: Transport mogul shares his experiences
Globally known for his successful transport enterprises, Sir Brian Souter CA will join ICAS as President-Elect in April 2017. Alex Burden caught up with him ahead of his new role to talk about his career experiences and the benefits of qualification.
Sir Brian notes that he will be looking to emphasise the importance of enterprise and innovation during his year as President-Elect, which is fitting given the number of former ICAS students who go on to open their own businesses and make their mark on the world.
He founded Stagecoach in 1980 with his sister, Ann Gloag and brother-in-law Robin Gloag, and has since grown the company to include bus, rail, tram and ferry services. What advice does he have for our budding entrepreneurs who are keen to put their plans into action?
“I would always say to young entrepreneurs that they should follow their passion and that having accountancy as a core skill-set is the best foundation that you can have.
“The key to my own success and career was taking the CA skill-set and then matching it with the passion I had for public transport. That numerical gifting and passion was probably the thing that was unique about how my career has developed, and the business developed from that.
“I think that there have been times in the development of our company, in the early days, that accounting skill was very relevant and important. It was good to be able to do that work myself and not have to pay someone else to do it!
I think the foundations and philosophy of ICAS are absolutely right – the first thing we’ve got to do is not compromise them, and the second thing we have to do is modernise them in such a way that they remain relevant and meaningful for the current generation and the times in which we live.
“Also, [the CA qualification helped me] to understand what was happening with trends… It taught us a lot of methods about how to analyse and to rationalise – these skills were really useful when it came to the early days of the business and working out what was happening.”
Sir Brian is enthusiastic about the opportunities that can be created for young people through the ICAS Foundation, which supports students into university and training. “I’m passionate about enterprise,” he explains, “and it’s also important to me to live in a compassionate society.
"One of the reasons I agreed to take on this role was that it’s really important what the ICAS foundation is doing. They’re dropping ladders down, to people who are socially excluded, to follow a career in accountancy.”
He “absolutely applauds the objectives of the Foundation”, and feels strongly about increasing its reach and profile, including some potential events later in the year. “It’s about enterprise, compassion and inspiration,” he enthuses.
“I think the foundations and philosophy of ICAS are absolutely right – the first thing we’ve got to do is not compromise them, and the second thing we have to do is modernise them in such a way that they remain relevant and meaningful for the current generation, and the times in which we live.”
Overcoming barriers to becoming a CA
It is well-known that Sir Brian grew up helping his bus driver father as a child, and it was this influence which sparked his love for transport. But what was the deciding factor for starting his journey to becoming a CA?
“I was always quite numerate as a child – it’s a rather strange story as I don’t have O-level Maths: I had a mental block about mathematics which was a big challenge for me,” he explains.
“If you put x and y in an equation I just didn’t get it. But if you put pounds into it, I could get it reasonably quickly… the management of money always interested me, and I was always able to save money. I used to work at berry-picking, after-school jobs, and so on, and I saved quite a bit of money just off my own earnings.
“I couldn’t go and do a university degree because they wouldn’t let me in without O-Level Maths – I had statistics and arithmetic, so I went to another course at Dundee College of Technology (University of Abertay Dundee) for a diploma in commerce, which was a teaching qualification degree-equivalent.
If you have a more diverse workforce, in my view, you will produce better results and create a good environment, which avoids stereotyping.
“When I was finished, I decided I wanted to be an accountant so I used that qualification to get into second year at Strathclyde University, and the rest is history. At that time, I had to fund my own way, so I worked on the buses on Glasgow while at university, which was a very interesting experience!”
Surprises for the training office
Sir Brian laughs when asked about his own student experiences with ICAS, and muses that despite his first-time exam passes at distinction level, that he was “admittedly always someone who crammed – I was motivated by deadlines and sufficiently afraid of re-sits!
"I surprised quite a lot of people in my training office; my Diploma course involved bookkeeping so I had even learned container accounts, so when it came to ICAS I had a broad accounting background.”
He trained with the Glasgow office of Arthur Andersen, which Sir Brian sums up as a meritocracy. “Andersen took a wide range of students, many of whom had shown exceptional academic performance,” explains Sir Brian, “but they also had the good sense to work out that sometimes there were people that weren’t, perhaps, academic giants, but they’d had to drive very hard to get to where they were.
“That was of great interest at Arthur Andersen, because in a meritocracy you want to have diversity and self-motivated people. They were, in some ways, quite unique, back then.
“If you have a more diverse workforce, in my view, you will produce better results and create a good environment, which avoids stereotyping.”
To read the full interview, check out the April 2017 edition of The CA.