Sir Tom Hunter: We should judge government by its actions, not words, on business

SIR Tom Hunter has declared the Scottish Government will be judged “by their actions, not their words” amid ongoing concerns that ministers are not listening to the needs of business as companies come under renewed pressure from the pandemic.

The comments from Sir Tom came as new accounts from the high-profile entrepreneur’s West Coast Capital investment vehicles had total equity of more than £200 million by year-end on March 31, 2021, following a “solid year of progress”.

He highlighted the impact made by West Coast’s investment in e-commerce businesses, which have thrived during the pandemic, and in the Winchburgh village under development in West Lothian, as well as a contribution of £29.6m to The Hunter Foundation, his philanthropic organisation.

Scottish ministers have faced recurring claims from some quarters that they have not sufficiently prioritised business as measures such as lockdown have been imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus. And there has been renewed tension since the emergence of the Omicron variant in late November, which will result in restrictions being reintroduced to the hospitality, retail, sports and events sectors from Boxing Day.

Speaking to The Herald, Sir Tom said he approached the Scottish Government after the pandemic struck to offer the input of senior colleagues in the business community to help officials respond to the challenges of the crisis. A series of papers written by leading figures such as fund manager James Anderson and entrepreneur Chris van der Kuyl were subsequently submitted to government.

Asked to comment on the response to that input, he said: “It’s fair to say, they make a point of saying they are listening, I’m not sure. I will judge them by their actions, not their words.”

When asked if he shares concerns held by some that ministers do not understand the challenges facing business, he added: “It is a hard job, and I appreciate it is a hard job. But what I am saying is… the authors of those pieces… are excellent people who care about Scotland, [and] are not in it for anything apart from helping Scotland.

“I think they deserve to be listened to, and their points acted upon. I think Scotland would be better if that happened.

“As I say, the jury is out. We’ll judge them by their actions and not their words.”

On the latest restrictions facing businesses, brought in to combat the Omicron threat, Sir Tom said it was important that businesses, such as those in hospitality that are facing curbs on trading capacity through no fault of their own, are supported, though he said public cash should not be distributed indiscriminately.

“If you were a good going business before… we need to help those businesses get to the other side, because they will be good going businesses again,” he said.

“I think it would be a crime if a business was good and it was solvent before all this, but it went bust because of this.

“That is a hard call for government to make. I understand that. But there are many ways they can help. We have offered lots of people to sit down so that government understand what is going on. Another theme of mine is, if we are going to write policy, let’s write policy in collaboration with business. Let’s do it with business, not to business.”

Accounts for Sir Tom’s West Coast Capital Holdings show total equity stood at £195.6m on March 31, up from £183.9m the year before. West Coast Capital Assets had more than £9m of equity at March 31.

Sir Tom continues to be a major investor in The Hut Group (THG), which a spokesperson said has been a “stand out investment for us and since we first invested years back we have taken out over £100m from there.”

Sir Tom said he was unable to comment on reports that THG, which is led by co-founder Matthew Moulding, could be taken off the stock market.

A spokesperson said: “We continue to hold a significant stake and believe Matt Moulding is one of the best entrepreneurial disrupters of his generation and are proud to be investors with him.”

Further progress was highlighted by West Coast at Winchburgh, where six builders are currently on site. Three new schools are due to come on stream in 2022, and the new marina will be opened in spring. West Coast said consumer demand was strong.

Meanwhile, Sir Tom said he was “really proud” to have made a £29.6m donation The Hunter Foundation, which he runs with wife Marion.

He said that when the pandemic broke out he decided to “pull our philanthropic giving forward because the need has never been greater”.

He said: “We have been lucky enough with some of our investments to be able to do it.”

West Coast Capital noted that it holds its investments at cost or lower, though accounting convention means it has to “mark to market listed investments”.

“We prefer to take a profit or loss when we sell not on a point in time driven by a theoretical accounting policy,” the spokesperson said. “Hence some may conclude, falsely, that in WCC Assets we took a loss on our THG plc position; patently we didn’t as we continue to hold these shares.”

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