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

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.

News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
News
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
newsThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Candidates with surnames that start with an A have an electoral advantage
newsVoters are biased towards names with letters near start of alphabet
Arts and Entertainment
Isis with Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Compensation and Benefits Manager - Brentwood - Circa £60,000

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Compensation and Benefits Manager - Compensat...

Data Analyst/Planning and Performance – Surrey – Up to £35k

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

IT Systems Business Analyst - Watford - £28k + bonus + benefits

£24000 - £28000 per annum + bonus & benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Business Syste...

Markit EDM (CADIS) Developer

£50000 - £90000 per annum + benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Markit EDM (CA...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker