Norman Murray CA shares the lessons learned throughout his career
From living on £800 a year to bringing a business ethos to the arts, Norman Murray CA has lived a life of challenge and adventure. Cherry Casey hears what he has picked up en route
Education is the key
I was pretty unmotivated at school. I didn’t see the point of it, but my parents – neither of whom was university educated – were very keen on education and the benefits of learning. Without their encouragement, I might never have raised my game. They gave me a lot of opportunities.
I never expected to become a CA
I did a degree in commerce and business and, after graduating, worked for the FD of Scottish and Newcastle Breweries. He was very encouraging. I did a lot of work that was financially orientated and found it was quite interesting – so I decided to qualify as a CA. It was a big step as I was earning about £3,000 a year at that point and my wife was earning the same. But we gave up our jobs, moved to Edinburgh and had to live on less than £800 a year until my wife got a job.
Work abroad if you get the chance
Qualifying as a CA gives you a lot of overseas opportunities and I would advise any young CA to take them. And I don’t mean in a tax haven with nice beaches, but somewhere with a thriving business community! When I qualified in the 1970s, my wife and I decided to move to Hong Kong, where I joined KPMG and she worked as a geologist. At that time, Hong Kong was a very long way to go, but I wanted somewhere adventurous.
I learned so much from being immersed in such a multicultural, multiracial world. Later, I joined the executive education programme at Harvard Business School and again, working alongside people from different industries, different countries and different cultural backgrounds was a fantastic experience.
Be adaptable, but don’t betray your principles
I’ve been chairman for a range of private and public companies over the years, including Edrington Group, Cairn Energy and Petrofac. I’ve had the same basic style for each – transparency, honesty, straight talking – while adapting to the different personalities, economic circumstances and dynamics of the organisation.
Encouraging school leavers to join ICAS would improve diversity
I became Chair of the ICAS Foundation because I thought it would be good to help socially disadvantaged but talented youngsters go to university by providing grants and a mentor. ICAS also now accepts school leavers with university entrance to train as a CA through a non-graduate route in conjunction with employers.
The combination of both encourages talented school leavers to aim high and widens the talent pool to include those who have the ability for university, but either can’t or don’t want to go. Having business leaders speak about ethics, culture and values is another way forward. You can learn a lot listening to someone who has been round the track.
Outline your personal business values from the off
Whenever I take on a new chairmanship, the first thing I tell the board is that there’s to be no politics (with a small “p”) around the table. I’ve seen businesses steeped in politics and it’s no good. Second, I want mutual trust and respect, as well as strong challenge from everyone. That doesn’t mean knocking an idea down for the sake of it, but making sure, when we come up with a plan, that we’ve kicked it around and everyone’s happy with it. And then I want strong support for the executive to carry it out.
To truly appreciate the arts, get involved
Playing Macduff in a school production of Macbeth made Shakespeare come alive for me. I’ve been interested in the arts ever since, and my wife and I visit museums, galleries, the opera, the theatre and the ballet whenever we get the chance.
I applied to be Chairman of the Scottish Ballet in 2013 so I could get a better grasp of what goes on behind the scenes. My pitch was: “I can bring business principles to the arts, in terms of governance, fundraising strategy, all of that, and in return I want to understand how the arts are run.” It worked, and I had seven fantastic years there. I was involved in all of it, taking a genuine interest in going to performances and getting to know everyone, from dancers to funders. During my time there I increased our donors and brought in a more effective governance with an emphasis on organisational culture and values. [Murray was awarded a CBE for services to the arts in 2022].
Everyone needs an escape
The arts let me see a different side of life and take me away from my problems for a few hours. I also like to go on long walks, climb, cycle and swim. I scaled Mont Blanc as well as several other mountains in the Alps in my climbing days, which was a great distraction during my executive career as it a required a different kind of focus.
It’s good to keep the physical side of things going, and to stay mentally fit. I’m involved in a lot of different projects, such as the ICAS Foundation and as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh while also staying engaged with my business colleagues.
You can never know too many people
I have endured multiple challenges during my career, but strong personal relationships count for a lot. My advice to anyone is: get steeped in the organisation. Speak to everyone you can to fully understand it, and work hard on your networking.
That’s the best piece of advice I’ve had. Enjoy life when you’re doing well, but don’t get too cocky because you never know what’s around the corner. Work hard and aim high, but stay appreciative of your circumstances and what people are doing for you.
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