Liz McAreavey: What does being world-class actually mean?

Liz McAreavey is CEO of Edinburgh Chamber Of Commerce. Picture: Scott Louden

Liz McAreavey is CEO of Edinburgh Chamber Of Commerce. Picture: Scott Louden

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I’ve been lucky enough to do some travelling in recent weeks and it’s interesting to compare our culture with others – the warm welcome and hospitality of the East, their work ethic and culture of enterprise, their generosity of spirit and friendship. Perhaps it’s the sunshine that makes everyone happy – it certainly worked for me. Or was it the short relief from the politics of home? No talk of Brexit, General Elections or Indyref2 – bliss.

My admiration for the Eastern culture helped me reflect on emerging markets, and how Scotland could risk falling behind in the accelerating race for technological advancement. The pace of change is now the fastest it’s ever been, but it will never be this slow again. We cannot ignore the new era of algorithms, social media and robotics that run our lives, manage our homes and allow us to browse, compare, order and pay for goods and services at the tap of a screen.

How does Edinburgh compare at this level? Do we have the culture to adapt and compete? We talk about being world-class – but what does that mean? What takes a business from emerging, to mature, to world-class? And how do we as a city create businesses that become global market leaders?

To flourish, we need a strong and stable economy across a diverse range of sectors. We need inspiring leaders and innovative companies who reach out to the global market, offering our products and services.

As Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh acts as a hub for knowledge and innovation, and is renowned for the world-class research coming from our universities. The number of technology start-ups emerging from Edinburgh is increasing year on year with names including SkyScanner, FanDuel and Cortex growing to become international leaders in their markets. As well as our home-grown talent, Edinburgh was recently named the Best European City for Technology Firms to Locate, with global leaders Amazon and Microsoft now operating from the Capital.

So, there’s no shortage of products, talent and enterprise. But the challenge we are faced with is – how do we harness this and create global businesses that survive the start-up years and accelerate to scale and market leadership? We need to lead, educate and support entrepreneurship, and recycle the knowledge and experience from our successful business leaders. We need high-speed digital connectivity and we need to encourage the ambition for international trade whilst ensuring businesses have access to international markets to support them in competing on the world stage. And we need a skilled workforce to help build these businesses – a workforce that is diverse, ambitious, resilient and also international.

The Scottish Government can only deliver its economic strategy if the business community is strong and grows significantly in the coming years. The public sector accounts for more than 50 per cent of the workforce and real growth in employment and the tax base can only come from the private sector. If we want to improve public services, we must pay for them. The levers that are available under the devolved powers must be used to attract investment and support expansion in Scotland. Core business costs need to be eased as inflation rises, business rates are hiked and the cost of importing components increases.

The Balance of Trade deficit is widening significantly in spite of advantageous exporting conditions because we import far more than we sell abroad. Now is the time for Scottish businesses to look further afield to overseas markets and opportunities. Brexit might be a distraction and a source of uncertainty but we need to continue to expand into new markets and take advantage of the immense talent and innovation we have in Scotland.

Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce and other business organisations are working hard to ensure we embrace these opportunities and also have the support to compete and fully exploit the advantages we have in abundance. Scotland is open for business and never mind the Silk Road, we have the Tartan Highway!

Liz McAreavey is chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce