Scottish Financial News feature on Lord Smith of Kelvin

07 Nov 2013



An edited version of this article by Greg Gordon first appeared in the Scottish Financial News in October 2013.

Were it not for a quirk of fate, the much-decorated Baron Smith of Kelvin, would be approaching his 70th year, a retired English teacher, indulging a passion for antique books and the cherished company of extended family.

Instead, a quirk of fate ensures that the son of a military father from Glasgow's Maryhill, who worked his way up from staff sergeant to Lt Colonel during his wartime service, is preparing for two massive challenges: running the UK government-backed Green Investment Bank headquartered in Edinburgh and overseeing his home city's staging of next year's Commonwealth Games.

Lord Smith is regarded as amongst the safest pair of hands of his generation. He is the establishment's go-to guy whether you need a bank set-up, a museum built or an international sporting event organised. Retirement, if it was ever an option, is out of the question.

Educated by bursary at Allan Glen's the merchant school created to support talented youngsters, ironically, Lord Smith of Kelvin owes his current standing to the fact that he failed English Language and Literature exams at Glasgow University. That stymied his English degree course aspirations, steering him towards economics instead and a career in accountancy.

For the then plain Robert Smith it was the stuff of happy accident. The enforced sideways step revealed not only a hidden faculty with numbers but a vocation offering the keys to a magic kingdom of high finance, business and the most august institutions of the public and private sector.

Lord Smith says:

I was teetotal, I had a steady girlfriend. To this day I have no idea what happened in that exam room but whatever it was it was the best mistake I ever made. My mother didn't think so however, she was the great driver of the family and she considered me to be an underachiever thereafter - even when I began to get wider public recognition. I think she'd set her heart on me teaching English. It is a real source of regret that she wasn't around to see me receive my knighthood.

It is 50 years since Lord Smith earned his universal business grounding elbows-deep in the balance sheets of the butchers, bakers and fish and chip makers of the then small business specialist accountants Robb Ferguson and Co in Glasgow. The world has become a greatly changed place since then and few people can lay such claim to shaping their times in such profound, and so diverse, a fashion.

The current chairman of The UK Green Investment Bank, is also Chairman of Glasgow's 2014 Commonwealth Games Organising Committee, Chancellor of the University of Strathclyde and a bigwig at both SSE and The Weir Group and an Independent Crossbench Peer knighted for his services to The National Museums of Scotland. He is favoured by the political elite of all shades as a unity appointment whose only agenda is to get the job done well, on time and on budget.

It is the same consistent approach he's taken to the toffs of Sussex Heritage Trust in the 70s as he applied as president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland, Chief Executive of Deutsche Asset Management, Chairman of The BBC's Children In Need appeal and non-exec roles at Stakis, Bank of Scotland, MFI, Network Rail, Aegon and as a pre-Trust BBC Governor.

Lord Smith says:

I am a very quick learner, and the more I've worked in different roles, the more I've been able to bring different people and different strands of experience from different sectors together. My talent is to bring both a fresh eye to each role I've undertaken and as time has gone on, the benefit of experience built up from witnessing good and bad thinking first hand across a great variety of situations.

On the face of it a CV spanning almost 60 significant entries in 50 years for chairmanships, directorships, executive posts, awards and honorary positions could be construed as both a talent spread too thinly and the supreme product of networking over substance.

It would be a fair point but for the fact that Lord Smith can point from his Green Investment Bank office window across the Edinburgh skyline to the National Museum for Scotland, an architectural treasure, and a much-loved totem of national cultural life which he brought into being on time and on budget.

Equally he can list the figures for deals that effectively created the concept of management buy-outs in this country. They reached their zenith with his 1987 MFI buy-out that raised £750m external investment funding for the furniture retailer at a point where £150m would have been a realistic norm.

Having investigated the corruption known as the Morgan Grenfell Asset Management Scandal of 1996 Lord Smith confirmed his credentials as an eagle-eyed forensic accountant. His 'Smith Report' of 2003 remains the benchmark of guidance for quoted-company audit committees. In the education sector, as Chancellor he saw the merger of University of Paisley and Hamilton's Bell College, creating Scotland's biggest new university - the University of the West of Scotland. Earlier this year he also chaired the committee which produced the governance code for all Higher Education Institutions.

These are tangible, measureable achievements that fly in the face of current corporate orthodoxies and Lord Smith believes that there should be space for those motivated by a spirit of vocation in an era of micro-managed, rigid careers.

Lord Smith says:

The tendency in modern life is towards intense specialisation but I've always believed that, as long as you have a grasp of the numbers, the fundamentals in any business situation, then your variety of experience can actually produce far better ideas. Whenever I manage people, I always tell them to broaden their experience, volunteer for things, push themselves outside their comfort zone. Do that and you will return re-invigorated to your day job.

Lord Smith's current roles at The Green Investment Bank and The Commonwealth Games provide a neat symmetry for a career that has come full circle.

The Commonwealth Games has given him a 'once in a lifetime chance to shape an international event in his home city', but he says it took the intervention a nosy driver to persuade him to throw his hat in the ring for the role. I took the call when I was working for Weir's and my instinct was it was simply a bridge too far for me. The driver talked me round, he said 'If that call was what I think it was then you have to take it. Opportunities like that come around once in a lifetime'. He was right and I called straight back, confirming I'd be honoured to be considered."

The Green Investment Bank role recalls his first major position at Industrial and Commercial Finance Corporation (ICFC), the Bank of England-funded 'social bank' created in 1945 to provide intervention funding for small and medium sized businesses struggling to expand in a stagnant post-war climate.

That business mutated into 3i, the multinational private equity and venture capital company that Lord Smith returned to as a non-exec director between 2004-2009.

Lord Smith says:

The ICFC was created to tackle a glaring market failure in post-war Britain. Now we have a similar market failure in managing our transition to a low carbon economy. The scale of the challenge is massive - we need to see an investment of £200bn in green infrastructure in the next ten years if we are to achieve our climate change targets. But current levels of investment are half that. We need to get greener, quicker.

The government is getting the ball rolling but there is an opportunity here for huge growth in a new asset class; investments that are both green and profitable. Long-dated capital like pension funds and sovereign wealth funds will move in where there is a profit to be made from socially responsible innovation,  this bank will help to jump-start that process by showing how it can be done.

This is more than a cosmetic exercise and a project that has real relevance for Scotland. We have 25 per cent of the off shore wind energy, 25 per cent of the tidal energy and 10 per cent of the wave power potential in Europe. The Green Investment Bank has £3.8bn to invest in the projects that can make use of these God-given resources - and it is something we should do. ICFC created a business model that was so successful in its early years that it was imitated by a number of other private sector banks, increasing its impact exponentially. That's a trick I hope to see once again with GIB.

Lord Smith would consider, Norman Macfarlane, a fellow peer and leading industrialist with the likes of The Clydesdale Bank, Diageo, United Distillers and his own Macfarlane Group as both a mentor and inspiration. Scouting around, he says that he has taken a special interest in the careers of younger Scots who he believes can follow him as the next generation of business leaders with a special commitment to Scottish civic life.

Looking back on his career, Lord Smith says:

There is no doubt that I got on some boards because I was Scottish, because of my relatively humble background or because I could count. Rather than focus on that fact, I was conscious of making the most of the opportunities that presented themselves as they arose. Sometimes that means working smarter or harder, but the key is to make good use of the specific skills you have. In my case, these days I can rely on my experience, my charm or whatever but what really made my reputation was the fact that I was a very good accountant. I was great on the detail. The key thing is that you establish your niche, get yourself out there and make the most of opportunities when they come along.