Chatting in the sunshine at a cafe in Edinburgh’s Marchmont district, it didn’t take a lot to work out that Margaret McPherson had spent some time in the US.
“Which of you is the single shot skinny latte with no foam?” asks the waitress. Ah, the joy of choice that only a New Yorker would properly understand.
McPherson is a Lanarkshire lass who went to the Big Apple on a six-week ‘assignment’ for her boss and did the usual trick of staying longer than planned. Two years, in fact.
“I had been working in London and loved it, then I went to New York and I absolutely loved it,” she says.
Her task had been to sort out a business back office provider which had found itself “in crisis” after cutting costs and ending up being under-resourced.
“After about two weeks there I was asked to run a region,” she says. In London her clients included the big law firms and investment banks such as Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse and now she was dealing with them again, running a division with 1,100 staff and a turnover of $100 million.
She quickly noticed a difference in approach: “In London there was a tendency for clients to micro-manage the services we were providing. In New York the clients trusted us. We were their advisers.”
That was 20 years ago and despite enjoying the US lifestyle and work ethic, Margaret Lang, as she was then known, yearned to come home to Scotland. Since returning she has bought, grown and sold a business and currently chairs the Edinburgh-based estate agency and law firm Coulters.
“It’s good to be in Scotland, particularly in this weather,” she says, sharing everyone’s delight, and not a little surprise, at the sustained warm weather.
She may have enjoyed the swanky New York lifestyle, but returned regularly to Scotland where she knew she wanted to set up a business. Despite the opportunities that America offered, she felt more comfortable about doing it on home turf.
“I loved the American belief in a meritocracy and their aspirations as individuals. They really do believe that if they work hard they can achieve what they want. They are so positive and enthusiastic.
‘I had always wanted to work for myself’
“We had staff doing junior admin jobs who craved information about the business and feedback on how they were performing and how they could do a better job.
“The whole employee engagement thing was like nothing I had seen before. It was brilliant.”
Leaving was tough, but she says that she was reaching the stage where she had to make a decision about her future.
“I was 35. I was coming home every three months and was still emotionally attached to Scotland. I had to decide whether to stay and buy somewhere, or go back. I had always wanted to work for myself and knew that I could not put off that decision much longer.
“I felt that if I stayed in the US I would have worked for someone else. I’m not sure why I didn’t launch a business there. Maybe it came down to not having a network of long-established friends and family around to support me.”
She took six weeks out living in Spain, playing a lot of tennis (‘badly’) before re-settling in Scotland and “feeling apprehensive” about her plans. Her caution didn’t last long. She came across a printing company called Docuserve, led a management buy-in, and two years later bought out the joint owner.
There were a couple of rounds of fund-raising followed by the launch of a managed services division, whose first client was HBJ Gateley, the law firm managed by Malcolm McPherson, now her husband.
A former colleague in New York, Englishwoman Rachel McCorry, came back to the UK to join her and after they sold the printing business, the company was renamed Intelligent Office. It now has four shared services centres and employs 800 staff. McCorry went on to lead her own MBO.
“It allowed me to realise some of the value I had built in what I had created,” says McPherson who remains a director, but spends more of her time mentoring employees and young firms.
She has a fascination with start-ups and is relishing her role at Coulters which has plans for expansion, geographically and by re-working the home-selling and buying model around customer service.
The firm’s legal services merged with HBJ Gateley (now Addleshaw Goddard) in 2016, so McPherson was well-placed to become executive chairman after co-founder and CEO Mark Coulter left in February this year.
“I started on the day we were named residential property team of the year at the legal awards. I was sure it was because of my plans,” she jokes.
More seriously, she says: “The business needed to be more progressive. It was a perfect example of an owner-managed business which needed to improve its business processes.”
It was also perfect territory for someone who likes nothing more than seeing a business grow into something meaningful.
‘You do not have to be a unicorn to show you’re successful.
“I am not a lawyer, I am a builder of businesses and customer services. I think I can add value in terms of accelerating this company’s growth. At some point we will get to the stage where it is motoring and then we can look at appointing a CEO.”
So where does she think many young businesses go wrong?
“They often suffer from a lack of senior experience, usually because they cannot afford it.
“They tend not to be very structured, with no clear strategy or reporting process. If they put in good processes at the beginning they will still be there as they grow. It is important to lay good foundations which allows you to focus on the clients rather than the supporting functions.”
McPherson says companies should also be pragmatic and realistic in setting their goals, distancing herself from much of the current talk about going global.
“It is amazing what companies like Skyscanner have done, but you do not have to be a unicorn (a billion dollar business) to show you’re successful.
“We have to be careful about the messages we are giving because many businesses can be successful by staying small.”
Birthplace: Lanark. Grew up on a farm
Lives: Scottish Borders
Education: Glasgow College of Food and Technology (hotel management)
Career highlights: worked in hospitality management; approached to take a job in outsourcing with Williams Lea in London; moved to New York to work with Bowne Business Solutions; founder Docuserve (Intelligent Office); director of Intelligent Office; executive chairman Coulters,
Sits on board of two firms in London and is chairman of Princes Trust Scotland
Give one example of the advice you would give to employers
I had a boss in my 20s who gave me opportunities and was really supportive. I would say give your people a chance to show what they can do.
Your biggest frustration
Those who complain about being too busy. What wants to be quiet?
And your biggest irritation
Drivers on the A7.
Sailing on our Benetu 60 boat and being at home. We love the Borders. It is a wee piece of heaven.
We have two highland cows, 14 chickens and two dogs.
If you could entertain three people, past or present, who would you invite?
Billy Connolly, so clever and funny
Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York, who changed the city from being a frightening place
Linda Finkel, the CEO of Bowne Business Solutions. I learned so much from her. My career owes a lot to her.