CIPFA Scotland: CalMac chief sets out role for entrepreneurial state-owned firms

18 Mar 16

A government-owned business can be entrepreneurial if it changes its philosophy and encourages ambition and risk-taking, the head of Scotland’s principal ferry operator told delegates to the CIPFA Scottish conference in Glasgow.

“Ask forgiveness, not permission” was the mantra suggested by Martin Dorchester, chief executive of David MacBrayne, the Scottish Government-owned group best known for running the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry serving Scotland’s Western Isles.

With the contract on that business currently under tender and due to be settled at the end of May, the group has increasingly diversified outside Scotland, forming a joint venture to run the Marchwood Military Port at Southampton and winning a ferry service in Sweden.

Dorchester owned up to an element of trial and error in these new ventures, and said the responsibilities of non-executive directors sometimes had to be weighed against government policy. He regretted the culture of blame that surrounded public agencies, which made it harder to take on complex and challenging projects.

MacBrayne, he said, had worked hard at building relationships with its ministers and sponsor agencies, encouraging staff to take initiatives and to multi-task, and developing its contribution to objectives like combating rural depopulation and actively supporting food and drinks producers. It had built a narrative of “enhancements, improvements and benefits” rather than cost control.

“If you’ve got forward motion, it’s hard for people to stop you,” he said.

  • Keith Aitken
    Keith Aitken

    covers Scottish affairs for Public Finance from Edinburgh. He was formerly economics editor and chief leader writer on The Scotsman and now has a busy freelance career as a writer, broadcaster and event chair.

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