Interview: Lena Wilson, CEO, SDI

05 October 2009

The head of Scottish Development International is heading to the Middle East in her role of selling ‘Brand Scotland’ overseas.

In June, the World Bank ranked Scottish Development International (SDI), Scotland’s inward investment and trade promotion agency, sixth in the world for attracting foreign investment.

The accolade followed a bumper year for SDI and Scotland, with the agency responsible for delivering $730m worth of investment into the country in the 2008-09 financial year, creating almost 4,000 new jobs in the process.

Behind this success was Lena Wilson, SDI’s chief executive officer (CEO) and chief operating officer of its sister organisation, business development agency Scottish Enterprise.

Described as one of the most powerful women in Scotland, Wilson is a trained economist with an MBA from Scotland’s Strathclyde University, and a former World Bank employee. She is also one of a new generation of Scots who are used to mixing with world leaders and top executives.

Her experiences at the World Bank ranged from meeting heads of states to being airlifted out of Mongolian capital Ulan Bator during a civil uprising, an event that convinced her to return to Scotland from Washington.

“The World Bank was extremely rewarding,” she says. “I met people who were incredibly talented, which was great. But at the same time it was incredibly humbling – the poverty you dealt with, the feeling of helplessness sometimes. Seeing what was happening in the world really made me reflect on what we have in Scotland; the advantages the country has; how aggressive we should be in terms of our development.”

Selling Scotland

She returned home to work in the public sector. Her job today, she says, is as a “salesperson for Scotland”.

“I run a sales operation and my job is to -promote Scotland as a business location,” she says. “Scotland has a great brand, associated with quality, with innovation, with science, so why wouldn’t we use that?”

Although the current Scottish National Party government is vocal in its desire to develop the country as a key business destination and to sell Scottish companies as world class, it is the continuity of an operation like SDI that allows real progress to happen.

“The government’s ambitions are well known in terms of where they would like to take Scotland, but SDI has always been inst-rumental in selling Scotland’s uniqueness,” says Wilson.

Her background at the World Bank will be an important asset as she seeks to help Scottish companies and politicians navigate the -complex, and frequently unpredictable, world of international trade, in which politics can often interfere.

Precisely this was highlighted in August when the Scottish government released from prison the man convicted of killing 270 people in the 1988 bombing of a US airliner over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. Libyan Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was released from prison on compassionate grounds. But despite Al-Megrahi having cancer and only a few weeks to live, many people have accused the Scottish government of granting the release to help Scottish and UK companies win business in Libya.

The Scottish government has denied vigorously that this is the case. But there is no doubt that the controversy has raised the profile of Scotland’s businesses in the region. And if Scotland is to establish itself as a separate entity from the rest of the UK, it will have to be prepared to deal with such diplomatic incidents.

Key sectors

Wilson outlines six key sectors as particular strengths for Scottish business. Energy remains a key part of the economy, through both crude oil production from the North Sea and the engineering and services companies that have grown around the industry.

Despite what was effectively the national-isation of the country’s largest bank, Royal Bank of Scotland, by the UK government in 2008, Scotland remains a major force in finance and financial services.

“As with other countries, our banks are reforming themselves, but the country still has a really strong reputation for fund and asset management,” she says.

Tourism is another area where Scotland has considerable expertise, both in terms of visitor numbers and as an outlet for investment, she says, citing the 2008 acquisition of the Turnberry golf resort by Leisurecorp, a subsidiary of Dubai real estate developer Nakheel.

Scotland also has some key positions in the food and drink sector, with products such as Scottish salmon and whisky known around the world.

Wilson says the country is also a major force in digital media – for example, it is the home of Rockstar North, the computer games developer behind one of the world’s biggest selling video games, Grand Theft Auto.

Finally, there is the life sciences industry – the study and research disciplines related to living beings, from pharmaceuticals to agroscience – and research and development.

“Scotland attracts 20 per cent of all research and development that comes to the UK [despite accounting for little more than 10 per cent of its population],” she says.

Wilson says the Scottish character helps in attracting investors for these sectors. “There are many reasons, cultural and economic, why Scottish people do business so well,” she explains. “Many people had to go out into the world and leave their families behind in order to make it.

“If you look at the history of invention, from the telephone to tarmac and Dolly the [cloned] sheep, there is inventiveness, innovation and a need to discover the world. There is something Scottish about wanting to be really outward-looking. Scottish businesses are good stewards of their funds. The probity and direct way of doing business goes down well abroad.”

SDI is targeting Gulf states both as potential customers for Scottish companies and as investors in the country. The region is relatively new to Wilson herself and the Scottish government, but offers incredible potential.

“There are some amazing companies and investors in the Gulf,” says Wilson. “In return, we have a lot of companies that should interest them in terms of engineering, architectural services, oil and gas, and through some of the incredible educational links we have.

“We have a good relationship, but I don’t think we have properly recognised all of the opportunities, and that is something I want to explore.”

Wilson will tour the Gulf for a week starting on 4 October, with a busy schedule.

“I will be doing four or five things while I am out there,” she says. “Making sure I see as many Scottish investors in the region as possible, meeting the top people based out there, assessing how they feel their investments are going, and what their expansion plans are.”

She will also be gathering intelligence for the Scottish government on economic developments in the region, and visiting potential investors on its behalf.

Meetings with members of the GlobalScot network run by SDI, senior executives such as  Guy Crawford, CEO of Dubai-based hotel operator and developer Jumeirah Group, will also form a major part of the trip, as they are key to exploiting SDI’s success in developing new contacts, and ultimately finding new investors.

“I will always host an event for Global-Scots,” says Wilson. “A breakfast, a dinner, a lunch. We will take propositions out to people, or find mentors for companies looking to move into the market.”

Wilson will also call on local ambassadors and visit governments on behalf of Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond. In particular, she will visit the government of Qatar to discuss potential investments in Scottish infrastructure.

Wilson would not say what will be under discussion, but subjects are thought to include a major offshore energy project and an estimated $4bn scheme to replace a key bridge over the central estuary, the Firth of Forth.

Past successes

In these discussions, it helps that SDI can point to previous investment successes, such as Turnberry or, more recently, the entry of Abu Dhabi National Energy Company (Taqa) into the North Sea as an operator.

“As we build a track record of these companies having a good experience in Scotland, the more we can grow from that,” she says. “In the business community, people start to talk about things, and it is extremely valuable to have people spreading the good word.

“We want to build up a global business base in the Gulf. We want to work up Scotland’s profile as a great place with which to do business, so this is not about asking every company in Scotland if they have thought of moving out to the Gulf. Sometimes, the best thing to do is tell a company it is not ready. You need deep pockets to set up over here, and you have to be ready to commit in the long term.”

Career history

1984 Production and quality assurance management, electronics industry

1989 Joins Scottish Development Agency (now Scottish Enterprise)

1996 Appointed chief executive officer, Scottish Enterprise Forth Valley

1998 Seconded to World Bank

2000 Returns to Scottish Enterprise

2008 Appointed chief executive officer, Scottish Development International

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