SCOTLAND’S top companies are eyeing international acquisitions and relying on immigrant workers to fuel their next phase of growth this year.
Delegates at the gladiator-themed Entrepreneurial Ex-change annual conference at Gleneagles in Perthshire were in fighting spirit as the recovering economy improved order books.
But several chief executives said they were already bringing workers from abroad ahead of the European Union expansion, which will help Jack McConnell, the first minister, fulfil his promise of adding 7,000 new workers a year to Scotland’s thinning population.
Charan Gill, the founder of the 16-strong curry-house chain Harlequin Restaurants, said he had been forced to bring workers from India over the past year after failing to get a response to his recruitment adverts.
“We tried to recruit here and in Europe but didn’t get a response. Then we put an advert in a Delhi newspaper and got a few thousand e-mails back. When we went over to do interviews, the quality of people was amazing. These are qualified people working in five-star hotels who are bilingual and computer literate.
“There’s a general shortage of quality staff and with the new EU countries joining at the weekend we’re all wondering what kind of people are going to come into Scotland.”
Gill said about 40 of his 400 staff had come from India and over the next year to 18 months he expected to add another 15 to 20 immigrant workers. To help the new recruits feel at home Harlequin picks them up from the airport, arranges their accommodation and helps them open a bank account.
Ann Rushforth, the chief executive of ScotNursing, a nursing agency with a turnover of £11m, said her 4,000 staff included a small number of nurses from abroad, but she was now speaking to two agencies about providing a regular stream of staff from countries that could sustain it.
“We wouldn’t use countries where they already have a problem with a nursing shortage, like South Africa, where the economy’s in a mess,” she said. “We would only use countries which might have unemployed nurses, like Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and India. These countries also tend to train their staff more because their skills are exported.”
Amanda Boyle, managing director of Caledonian Contracts, a £20m-a-year shop- fitting firm, said labour shortages were well documented in the construction sector. The industry is estimated to be short of 70,000 staff a year and UK contractors are already deploying workers from EU accession states including Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania.
“It’s something we’re looking at,” said Boyle. “Scotland is a small country and doesn’t have enough bodies to deliver the services and industries that we want to. Because there are so many Scots who have left and are scattered around the world it seems reasonable to bring new people in.”
Jim McColl, the founder of international engineering group Clyde Blowers and new Entrepreneurial Exchange chairman, said everybody was looking at deals but were too cautious to say boom times were back. Clyde, which made profits of about £50m on £350m sales last year and has more than 1,000 staff in 32 countries, saw a “real upturn” in the second half of 2003 and was now pursuing acquisitive growth.
“Between 2000 and 2002 our main focus was how to keep profitable,” said McColl.
“Now our focus is more international and we’re looking for a couple of sizeable acquisitions in excess of £100m.”
He also said that Russia was a particular area of growth with reconstruction work and greater commercial stability under President Putin.
David Moulsdale, the founder of Optical Express, said he was evaluating the eyecare chain’s first move into the continent with a possible acquisition in Holland.
“Holland’s share of the laser eye treatment market is even less than the UK, so there’s a real opportunity there,” he said.
The keynote speaker at the Gleneagles event was Sir Chris Evans, whose venture capital group Merlin Biosciences is behind Dundee cancer treatment firm Cyclacel and Ardana, which specialises in reproductive health.
“When we produce these multi-hundred-million-pound listed companies I’m going to be very encouraged to do it again,” Evans said. “The chances of Merlin making more Scottish investments is guaranteed. We may even be looking at some now and over the next five years we’ll be back to do more. You’ve got the capabilities and infrastructure to build a base here in Scotland.”
Meanwhile Bill Gammell, the founder of £1.5 billion oil and gas explorer Cairn Energy, asked delegates to help raise £1m a year over the next three years for the Culture of Winning programme, a new initiative backed by the Scottish Institute of Sport to help Scotland produce world-class performances in business and sport. Rhona Martin, the Olympic curling gold medallist, Chris Cusiter, the 21-year-old Scottish rugby scrum half and Alison Sheppard, the Commonwealth gold medallist in 50 metres freestyle, helped launch the venture.
Gammell said: “I want to set up a new centre of excellence where we have the best performance, best coaching, best research and best results to provide the extra mile for these young people. Take a brave pill and, above all, believe and you’ll achieve.”
This year’s Entrepreneurial Exchange conference was sponsored by Bank of Scotland.