Ian Reid CA: The journey to a CBE
Ian Reid CA’s career began conventionally enough. But experience of public-private partnerships and a touch of serendipity led him to major organisational roles with not one, but two Commonwealth Games – earning him a CBE for his trouble. Kitty Finstad hears how
Here’s a head-scratcher. What’s at the centre of this Venn diagram: Ozzy Osbourne, King Charles III, the International Space Station and… an orange-hued soft drink popular in Scotland? The answer is Ian Reid CA, CBE.
Reid’s illustrious career – from his ICAS training at an independent firm in Glasgow to appearing on the latest New Year Honours list – has been the nucleus around which these seemingly disparate high-profile names and nouns spin.
“It’s a little bit embarrassing,” he admits, on the subject of being singled out for garlanding as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. This isn’t faux humility. Reid seems genuinely taken aback that of all the nominations for services to sport – on the back of the tremendous team effort to produce the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham – his name was among those that got the nod last December.
Others were surely unsurprised. As CFO of Glasgow’s 2014 Commonwealth Games (at which the International Space Station made an opening-ceremony appearance), Reid was part of the organising committee that delivered what has been widely acknowledged as “the best ever” Games. As CEO of the 2022 Games – planned and delivered in record time by Birmingham after original host city Durban pulled out – he effectively led a mega start-up. During the pandemic. Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne turned prodigal son for the occasion, making a surprise appearance to perform in his hometown during the closing ceremony.
The spotlight wasn’t always following Reid around. It came after years of diligent study, training, an ICAS qualification and a couple of unique opportunities. Like a lot of people, he left school unsure what he wanted to do. “But I was definitely attracted to some sort of business career,” he says. An accountancy and finance degree from Glasgow University was the logical first step. “I suppose the natural transition is into accountancy practice and becoming a CA,” Reid reflects. “However, you do have a choice at that point – coming out of university – to go directly into industry or get another qualification. But for me, a CA from the ICAS brand came with a huge reputation.” Reid was also advised by friends and family that the qualification “[gives] you a really broad and rounded understanding of business – and of course it’s recognised across industry. Getting that ‘badge’ kept – and still keeps – a lot of doors open.”
One of those doors was at French Duncan, a large independent accountancy practice with offices in Edinburgh, Stirling and Glasgow. The latter became Reid’s training base. “It wasn’t one of the Big Four, but they had several large plc clients. I was also exposed to small businesses and independent traders – and that gave me a solid understanding of business. I had a lot of autonomy and gained authority relatively quickly. I had to learn on my feet, balancing a full-time job with training and exams. It was challenging, but it gave me a really strong foundation for the start of my working life.”
Thanks to French Duncan’s affiliation with a consortium of international accountancy firms, Reid had the opportunity to join a grant-based auditing project for the European Commission (EC). “For the last few months of my training contract, I went over to Brussels and worked in the central office,” he says. “At the time, the EC was giving significant funding to all kinds of projects across the EU, and our firm’s task was to ensure that money was being spent appropriately.”
From there, Reid moved to PwC, working primarily with public-sector clients and government and dealing with “quite significant sums of money on significant projects”. After a few years of Big Four audit work, he moved from PwC to EY, picking up an opportunity to work in its infrastructure advisory business. This was in the mid-2000s, at the peak of private finance initiative deals.
“There, I was working on large public-private finance projects, advising on funding for big real estate developments, transport schemes, hospitals… those kinds of projects really attracted me because I wanted to work in something that had significant outputs,” he says.
As part of tenure at EY, Reid was also in the queue for interesting secondments. “There were massive projects whereby the government was encouraging a number of local authorities to transfer their housing stock to what was called ‘community ownership’. These were huge transactions – the one in Glasgow city council, for example, involved around 80,000 homes and a £4bn investment programme.”
Let the Games commence
That particular project resulted in an extended secondment, during which Reid noticed an advert for a finance role with the Commonwealth Games, which was on its way to Glasgow. Keen on sport but never having worked in it, Reid noted a “synergy between what I was doing and what they were looking for. It was both publicly and privately financed, there was a lot of stakeholder management… and I suppose it was a moment in my career where I really began to see the value of working in an industry you genuinely have a passion for.”
Fast forward through the organising committee selection process and Reid ended up as a financial controller for the Glasgow Games in late 2008 (“employee number five”). By 2009, he had been promoted to CFO at “a relatively young age for what was quite a big job”. He looks back at that time fondly: “The interesting thing about the Commonwealth Games is that the organising committee starts from nothing, grows to be one of the biggest companies in the host city, then dissolves in the space of around seven years. It was hugely challenging, but also hugely gratifying. The sport element, the change element, meeting new people… it was so enjoyable to be involved in delivering something that would be genuinely celebrated, and in what was now my home city.”
When he talks about the fast pace, immovable deadline, high-growth and high-profile learning curve, Reid’s energy is palpable. “There’s a lot of change. There’s a lot of money involved. And there’s a lot of stakeholder and media interests,” he says. Cue the astronauts on the International Space Station sending a message during the opening ceremony. It’s a unique set of scenarios presenting unique challenges.
After locking the doors and handing over to the liquidator in 2015 (“I was literally the last person out of that company”), Reid would’ve stayed in major sporting events had there been another local opportunity. Family commitments meant “going back into the real world”, this time with AG Barr, the company famous for manufacturing Irn-Bru. Funkin Cocktails was one of its newer brands, and Reid was appointed to its board in 2015. He admits he hadn’t heard of the maker of premium cocktail mixers and syrups, but praises the quality and innovation. “It’s a really high-quality product. It’s a great company, I learned a lot there. If the opportunity with Birmingham hadn’t come along, I’d likely still be there.”
In 2018, Reid received a call. The 2022 Commonwealth Games, originally awarded to Durban, had been reassigned to Birmingham. Time was running out. Would Reid consider bringing his Glasgow Games experience to a six-month interim role as CEO with the new organising committee?
“After a lot of discussions with family, I decided to jack in the secure job 30 minutes from home and go to Birmingham.” Reid couldn’t switch off his passion for the sporting world. “Plus I’d never been a CEO before. I’d observed some great ones, some not so great ones, and going in as interim meant I could test myself, get a sense of what I was capable of doing. And of course I had the Glasgow experience to draw on, remembering things that went well or didn’t. It felt a bit like having that time to go back and take a new approach.”
That new approach came loaded with even more pressure than Glasgow. The usual seven-year cycle was already cut to less than five. And then, less than two years after he joined, there was the pandemic. The world’s big sporting calendar was forced to shift, and the Games’ schedule was moved by one day to accommodate overlapping events.
Then there was the challenge of starting and staffing up. “When we went into lockdown number one in 2020,” Reid says, “we had 75 staff. By the time the last lockdown was over, we were 520, the vast majority of whom were recruited and onboarded remotely.” Reid had to build a culture with no physical meeting spaces, no natural way to integrate.
Alongside the obvious pandemic-spawned hurdles, leading a major multi-sport spectacle was unforgiving: “In most organisations, CEOs look at short, medium and longer-term strategies. With something like the Commonwealth Games, that fixed time period means there’s no time to waste. Because things are always changing – and frequently in the context of the pandemic – the culture is so important. With the rate of growth and sheer high numbers of staff coming onboard all the time, it’s crucial as a leader to embed that positive culture in the early days. The team who were privileged to come on early in Birmingham understood the importance of that.”
One of Reid’s leadership initiatives was the Birmingham Buzz – a weekly virtual meeting in which he would update the wider team on progress, then have a talk from an athlete, or a celebrity who had carried the Commonwealth baton. Ultimately, says Reid, the focus of the immovable deadline meant everyone knew what they had to achieve.
And achieve they did. Although Reid was part of the “command and control team”, dealing with day-to-day issues, a personal highlight was being in the stadium when runner Eilish McColgan won 10,000-metre gold for Scotland, with her mum, two-time 10,000-metre Commonwealth gold medallist Liz, looking on. “The atmosphere was just extraordinary,” he says.
After winding down the company for another successful Games, Reid will take on a bit of consultancy (he is currently doing some work for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Cabinet Office) before deciding on his next role. His love of sport means he wants to stay in the sector.
For aspiring CAs and early-career professionals, his advice is simple: “Get involved in industries and sectors you are passionate about. Do that and you’ll enjoy your career. The CA qualification opens a lot of doors and you can go into any sector in a financial, business or senior leadership role. Just take the time to think about it, do your research, don’t be shy about reaching out and using the ICAS network. You’ll end up somewhere that you’ll love.”
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