Reviving the art of making things
We’re in one of those rooms where history seems to seep out of the walls and provides a ghostly reminder of the trading deals discussed in times past.
Since 1877 the corner offices at 30 George Square have been home to Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, the oldest Chamber in the English speaking world “with continuous records”.
Today Victorian grandeur meets the modern world as the Chamber is hosting a media conference for the German airline Lufthansa. It also encapsulates the cosmopolitan flavour of the 21st century economy as a Scotsman leading the Chamber, a Frenchman working at the airport and a German representing the airline unveil a new daily connection.
Stuart Patrick, the Chamber’s chief executive, is also an incomer, though his roots are not too far away. He is a Clydesider having been born and raised in Greenock as the grandson and son of retailers. He opted for neither retail nor the shipping trade which made the area famous, instead becoming an accountant.
Now he speaks for all sectors and for the city which he believes has a new opportunity to revive its historic role as a place for making things.
“When people are asked what they think Glasgow is about the response is often ‘engineering’. There is still a view that it is still a great engineering centre,” he says.
“Weir Group may no longer make things but engineering is buried in the way we put together our strategies. We have significant engineering skills – 10,000 professional engineers work in this city.”
Many of them are consultants and designers and he says there is no reason why the city could not bring back more manufacturing.
“I would like to get this generation of engineers making products again. We have some tremendously innovative companies in satellites, photonics, renewables and a new manufacturing institute down the road.”
A big challenge is facing the city’s SMEs to become the next Babcock or Rolls-Royce, he believes, and that starts with the right mindset.
“We need to stop telling ourselves that we can’t do these things. We have to consider engineering as a fundamental part of what we are trying to develop over the next 10 to 15 years.”
Patrick arrived at the Chamber after a 17 year stint at the old Glasgow Development Agency and then the Glasgow Enterprise company working under the chairmanship of Willie Haughey.
‘There has been a shift towards higher value work’
He has seen the city re-invent itself at least twice in the 30 years since the garden festival and, later, the City of Culture initiatives were used to help build morale after the demise of many old industries and famous employers.
Campaigns, including Glasgow’s Miles Better, kickstarted a change of attitude aimed at those living in the city and at outsiders who were educated into seeing beyond its dirty, hard-living reputation and instead learned to admire its art, music, literature and capacity for industrial innovation.
It is now a shopping destination, a festival city and a conference location, though he says there is work to be done, including the addition of more hotel beds, particularly in the four and five star categories, and further investment around the Scottish Events Campus to help boost business tourism and add another million visitors.
Patrick says more effort is needed to protect the city as a retail centre, which means rethinking a wide range of policies.
“You have to be able to get here, by any form of transport,” he says, with reference to proposals to reduce on-street parking and introduce a congestion charge.
Such plans not only deter shoppers, he says, they also prompt alarm among the 17,000 individuals working in the city centre’s shops, and another 16,000 work in the night-time economy.
The city’s enduring relationship with sport has helped draw thousands to international tournaments in football, athletics, gymnastics, cycling and badminton and this will be a key driver of its status and appeal around the world, though Patrick says the debate about new facilities – and the future of Hampden Park – is moving up the agenda.
With all this activity either under way or at least on the ‘to do’ list does he think the city is still re-defining itself?
“Absolutely, yes,” he says, pointing to the “People Make Glasgow” badge on his jacket lapel.
The economy is now better balanced and no longer reliant on one or two core industries, but it has been a long and painful process.
He acknowledges that early attempts at replacing the thousands of skilled jobs lost in the 1980s demise of heavy industry meant relying too often on low skilled and modestly paid work. He says that has changed in the latest incarnation of the economy.
“When the IFSD [international financial services district] was created there were a lot of low-cost jobs, but there has been a shift towards higher value work. The likes of JP Morgan are paying above national pay rates and we now have some well developed software and fintech businesses springing up.”
The city’s challenge, he says, has switched from finding the jobs, to ensuring the next generation is trained to fill the vacancies now arising in new occupations, many of which were unheard of just a few years ago.
“We have solved the problem of demand,” he says. “It is now an issue of providing a supply of people equipped with the right skills.”
Occupation: Chief executive, Glasgow Chamber of Commerce
Career highlights: Glasgow Development Agency, Glasgow Enterprise Company, Glasgow Chamber of Commerce
What gets you frustrated?
When we underestimate the capabilities of our city.
How do you view the city’s relationship with Edinburgh?
We are rivals for investment and customers, but we also have complementary assets.
How do you approach legacy issues such as sectarianism?
We can’t deny they are there, but we wind ourselves up about it. Generally, I take the view that we need to move on.
I was in the pubs business and I now sit on a number of boards, including Clyde Gateway and Scottish Opera
If you could meet three people, past or present, who would you choose?
John Maynard Keynes (the economist). If ever there was someone who could assess the current circumstances then I could not think of anyone better.
John McEnroe (tennis player and commentator). When he was younger I loathed him because he was trying to beat, and eventually did beat, my hero Bjorn Borg. But I would now enjoy a conversation with him about his experiences.
Xi Jinping (president of China). He may just provide some insight into the future.