Football-loving Lord Livingston has one goal: let’s get Britain exporting

The Celtic-supporting government trade supremo tells Margareta Pagano that helping the country’s forgotten medium-sized businesses is top of his list of priorities – and how the transfer from BT left him £10m out of pocket

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The Independent Online

When Lord Livingston visited Brazil on one of his first UK trade missions, he asked his hosts whether they knew who brought the beautiful game to their country. “Not only did they know that it was a Scotsman who started football in Brazil, they asked me which Scotsman I meant,” says the Glaswegian, with a big laugh. “Football is a great example of what I call Britain’s soft power. Often when I talk to people overseas it’s the things like football or that we built their railways that connects us the most to them.”  

As any football fanatic will know, it was two Scottish expatriates working in Brazil – Thomas Donohue, a railway worker, and John Miller – who introduced football to the country in the late 1880s. British teams, such as the Corinthians, toured the country as early as 1910 and gave Brazil the name of one of its finest teams – and they have been in love with the game ever since. And done rather well.

The new Trade Minister, who for the record supports Celtic, tells his story at a meeting with two British exporters: Chris Neeves of MLM, an engineering consultancy doing good business in Brazil, and James Philipps of Murphy Philipps, an architectural practice which is building hospitals in Hong Kong and Libya. This is Export Week so Lord Livingston is at the offices of Murphy Philipps in Old Street, London, to find out how UK Trade & Investment can do more to help them – and lets me be a fly on the wall to hear what they say, warts and all.

There are wrinkles rather than warts: Mr Neeves wants reforms to the UK’s tax treaties with Brazil, while Mr Philipps says he’s been disappointed by a poor show from the Foreign Office in Libya. Both agree with the minister that the impact of soft power – even an English accent – is still a force to be reckoned with, and should be used with greater force in areas like thought leadership.

Lord Livingston promises to have a quiet word with FO officials, while he says that forging new trade agreements with the MeCASA countries – Mexico, Central America and South America – is already high on his agenda, as is a new trade agreement with Canada. And it’s some agenda: the UKTI helped 40,000 companies to export overseas last year, but now the ambitious former boss of BT wants to do the same for another 50,000 companies this year.

Top of his hit list are the UK’s 9,000 medium-sized businesses; the forgotten middle. “These are the great, often forgotten companies that contribute between  £20bn and £50bn to the economy. We need to focus on them – supporting them with introductions, finance and our new improved export guarantee scheme. In Italy medium-sized companies sell 30 per cent of their goods outside Europe. Ours sell only 16 per cent outside the EU,” he says.

“What’s interesting is that surveys show that 86 per cent of company bosses say the biggest obstacles to exporting are psychological, so it’s really important for us – and UKTI’s 300 advisers – to get out and talk to people; to show them how they can.”

He admits it will be a long haul to get Britain’s exports up: “We’ve had 30 to 40 years of hurt when exports were largely ignored, so this is a long-term strategy. But we’ve got a good base – Britain is still the world’s sixth biggest exporter.”

If anyone can get UK plc selling more, it’s Lord Livingston; his career has been meteoric and indecently precocious. After graduating from university at 19, he trained in accountancy, was the first accountant for The Independent newspaper, the youngest ever finance director of a FTSE 100 company at 32, and had finished five years running BT by the age of 49. He’s 50 in July.

He is also refreshingly outspoken; has criticised governments for their handling of airport capacity, funding infrastructure and lack of finance for small companies.  If nothing else, he will wear companies down with his hyperactivity, non-stop talk and obvious thrill with his latest mission. Before our meeting, he had presented to 200 companies, was due to visit more in the afternoon and had a speech to give in the evening. Four months into the new job, he has been to 12 countries and has another eight trips planned between now and July; all flights are economy. No wonder he’s as skinny as a whippet.

What’s more, he’s doing the job for nothing: Lord Livingston isn’t paid a penny for his work. He must have saved hard during his 11 years at BT to be able to afford to do the job, I suggest. “Yes, not bad. I’ve never spent much on expensive things – I had a six-year-old VW, but bought a small Jaguar when I took this job. I thought I should have a British car,” he says. “Bottom of the range.”

Indeed, Lord Livingston was generously paid at BT. After 11 years there, he was in line for almost £20m worth of shares, but he gave up £10m worth of options on taking his role. The balance has been put in a blind trust until the job is over.

“It’s a lot to give up, isn’t it?” he adds, seeing my disbelief. “When the call came from the Prime Minister’s office asking me to see him about the job, I decided immediately it was important and I had to do it. No second thoughts. I’m not a politial animal – trade should be bipartisan. But it helps that the PM, the Chancellor and the FO have made trade a top priority.”

A winner from the start

Education: Kelvinside  Academy. While he was at school, won Royal Bank of Scotland Fantasy Share investment competition, turning £10,000 into £30,000 in just 10 months. BSC economics, Manchester University. Trained as an accountant, Arthur Andersen.

Employment: 2008-2013: chief executive, BT Group. 2002-2008:  Finance  director BT and CEO of BT Retail. Previous to this, he was finance director at Dixons, worked at Bank of America, 3i, and on secondment from Arthur Andersen at ‘The  Independent’.

Personal life: Married, two children. Football, non- executive director of Celtic. Thinks the typical 9-to-5 workday should be scrapped and flexible hours introduced.