Charles Plowden: Scotland’s financial sector must rise to compete on world stagee

Scotland’s financial sector has a glorious history of innovation and professionalism, including the inventions of life insurance, trustee savings banks and investment trusts.

The sector employs more than 160,000 people, nearly six per cent of the workforce, and contributes a significant 9.4% or £13 billion to the local economy across a range of activities including banking, insurance, asset management and associated professional services.

It has a particularly strong international reputation and accounted for 40% of all Scottish services exports in 2018, bringing in £9.2bn from outside the UK. It the bellwether for Scottish competitiveness and enterprise.

The sector’s reputation undoubtedly took a knock following the shock of the global financial crisis and self-confidence remains somewhat weakened, not helped by the loss of a number of prominent HQs following corporate takeovers and mergers. Nonetheless, financial services remains one of the strongest elements in Scotland’s economy and contributes disproportionately; it should be treasured and supported, and its successes heralded.

In 1983 I travelled to Scotland to take up a position as an investment trainee at one of several small investment houses then based in Edinburgh. I came because of the sector’s reputation as an excellent training ground and because of Edinburgh’s great quality of life and vibrant universities.

I stayed in the same sector and indeed the same firm for around 38 years because of the opportunities afforded by a successful firm in a successful sector, where Scotland can genuinely compete with the best in the world and win.

We must ensure that ambitious graduates, from home or abroad, continue to begin their careers here, and we must encourage and enable them to stay for the long term and contribute to the growth of the Scottish economy.

Access to talent is vital if we are going to compete on a global stage. Our domestic market for financial services is limited in size, so we must prepare ourselves to compete successfully both nationally and internationally. We need not just talent, which we have in abundance from our 19 universities, but also a culturally diverse and outward looking workforce.

Of course, it helps if those universities and colleges are teaching relevant courses and equipping students with the appropriate range of skills, which are not just numerical and technical but also language and research based. But it is crucial that we also ensure our jobs market is open to the best talent we can find, wherever in the world it originates.

Training for the whole range of specialist financial services is best done ‘on the job’, to ensure it is both relevant and cutting edge. Employers need to put in the effort and investment necessary but to do so they need to be confident that employees will stick around. No employer wants to invest years in training only to lose their valuable trainee to another employer or financial centre. Scotland has had a good record in employee loyalty and retention, notably so in comparison to London but it cannot be taken for granted. We must reward loyalty with opportunity; in my experience a policy in favour of internal promotion is a powerful retention tool.

Opportunities are created by success and business growth; the alternative is stagnation and waiting to ‘fill dead men’s shoes’, which encourages the most talented to depart for more promising shores, leaving behind the risk averse and mediocre.

If the sector is to thrive it needs to grow and develop a supportive ecosystem of peers and suppliers. It needs to be entrepreneurial and vibrant. In particular, we need home grown and locally based businesses; we cannot rely solely on the kindness of strangers for our long term future.

Fintech and the shift to digital are both opportunity and threat. We must build on the success of our universities and inward investors such as Google to become a centre of excellence in digital technologies and AI. We must encourage and support more business start-ups, through close collaboration with the universities and venture capital but we must move at speed.

Early movers in technology can establish powerful competitive moats, as demonstrated by Scotland’s successful computer gaming industry. But with a large number of our financial jobs involved in outsourced asset servicing and banking roles, we are also potentially vulnerable to competitive displacement and automation; cost competitiveness will be critical.

Renewable energy and green finance offer an obvious opportunity; as early adopters of renewable generation can Scotland also establish a lead in the skills required to finance and trade energy? This is an early stage and open-ended growth opportunity but one again which demands speed and determination.

Infrastructure in all its guises must be strong to be competitive. We obviously need world class transport facilities and digital infrastructure. And our cities need to be accessible and attractive places to live and work, with desirable schools, housing and medical provision as well as a vibrant and open cultural life.

Stability and certainty are essential, especially in financial services which tend to be heavily regulated with readily transferable skills and a mobile workforce. Loss of regulatory authority is perhaps the greatest single risk to this industry, the bulk of whose clients and customers come from outside Scotland and who literally have a world of choice. We must not give them any easy excuse to go elsewhere.

Financial services represent one of Scotland’s most established sectors, with a strong international reputation for excellence and innovation.

We are competitive in large global markets which offer myriad opportunities for greater market share. The sector contributes disproportionately to the economy and is a source of highly skilled and well-paid jobs. It is more than economically viable and requires no special favours.

The chief requirements for continued success are a supportive, encouraging and stable business environment and ensuring that Scotland remains an open and appealing place to live and work.

Charles Plowden is a former senior partner of Baillie Gifford

Previous ArticleNext Article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *