Interview with Chris Thewlis at Vibrant Scotland Launch
Hi, I’m Lucy Dale, based at our Glasgow office and part of the Spilling The Beans team - a group of trainees from across our firm, helping to share insight into life at our firm.
Throughout 2018 and 2019, Grant Thornton is leading a series of initiatives under the banner 'Vibrant Scotland'.
Our aim is to facilitate greater dialogue across business sectors and with the key stakeholders shaping the future of Scotland's economy - from political leaders to civic society.
Our country is witnessing a period of rapid disruption and change, and we believe greater collaboration and positive debate will be key to delivering a sustainable, successful country that works for all.
I sat down with Chris Thewlis, from Social Enterprise Scotland - to hear about his pioneering work and how it feels to be a Face of a Vibrant Economy.
How do you think we can ensure that Scotland is at the forefront of business and innovation, especially in a post-Brexit economy?
Chris: You can’t ensure that, you can only strive for it through innovation, collaboration and - to some extent - competition. Because, without competition, how do we stimulate growth ? As long as there is a problem to be solved, someone will find a way to solve it. If we can see each problem as a challenge and find a way to overcome it, rather than thinking it's impossible and just giving up, we’ll be just fine.
What do you believe is the most untapped economic potential in Scotland’s economy?
Chris: The talent that will shape that future economy. Scotland is about individuals and it has this wonderful ability because, in the UK, it's seen as a region rather than a separate country. People say this is a bad thing but actually, when it comes down to it, it’s a really good thing. We do a lot of work in the security industry through GTS Solutions and we are able to push new ideas and do pilots in Scotland because it is such a great testing ground. Within the UK there are boundaries, such as different local authorities and regions, so Scotland makes for a perfect example to go back to the UK government and say: "We’ve done this here and this is what happened."
Picking up on your work in the security industry, how did you go from studying sport and exercise science at university, and being a golfer, to starting a security firm? And where did you get the idea to make it a social enterprise venture?
Chris: To help fund my golf career, I worked in security on pub/club doors, mainly for events, so I had experience in that sector. At the end of my degree I was offered the choice of a conversion course or money from the university. I took the money but needed to decide what to do with it. I’d worked with lots of people in security who had bad experiences, due in part to their employer and the fact that they were ultimately under skilled for the role, didn't carry the right amount of qualifications and didn't have funding support for development, so, there was a need there and it was all about what I could do to address that need. The best way to do that was to differentiate from the other side of the industry. With that in mind, I went along the social enterprise model and decided to help deliver profit back into the industry.
What is the best way to tap into young talent in Scotland, and what are the biggest challenges to overcome when trying to get onto the career ladder?
Chris: Having new ideas, fresh eyes, a different way of thinking and a different way of looking at things. If we can encourage that we can find a different way of doing business. There are a number of challenges, but I don’t like the education system. It teaches one way and one way alone, and it asks people to make decisions far too early on in their life. I have a definite belief that everyone should get a bursary, and they can chose to go to university or use that to get a mentor, get life experience and try things. Travel, learn who you are and what you want to do because, once you find what you want to do, you will very quickly start to work out how you can make a difference.
What advice would you give to the future trainees of Grant Thornton?
Chris: Never be afraid to ask questions – there is no such thing as a bad question or a silly question, only a poor answer. Always be inquisitive, always seek a better way to do what you are already doing well. And never be afraid to learn, no matter how old you are.
Do you have any big success stories from working with young people?
Chris: Loads. We had a young girl who was part of our 2013 security training program who was so shy when she first joined us, that she couldn’t speak to anyone. Now she is one of the security advisors at Holyrood. We also had 24 young people looking after the athletes at the Commonwealth Games who were all promoted. The training division runs one of the most successful employability programmes in the UK with a 97% retention rate and a 93% outcome rate for sustained employment.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge to date and how did you overcome it?
Chris: Well my biggest challenge to date would be learning to walk again after I crashed a racing bike into a wall when I was about 20. I broke my hip in three places and fractured my knee, and was in a hospital bed for six weeks. I’m good now, but that was a challenging time. I just had to get up and get on with it. If you give up you’re never going to succeed, you can’t just quit.
What do you think is a potential future challenge to social enterprise?
Chris: I would say the biggest challenge, especially in Scotland, is the changing landscape. It's a cluttered landscape and there is a growing movement towards organisations that have purpose and deliver that purpose, but also those that deliver that purpose without the traditional model. That was something I was at the forefront of in 2012. It is now gathering momentum but social enterprise as a whole in Scotland needs to pick that banner up and run with it.
What is the main thing you want people to understand about your social enterprise companies?
Chris: That it is ultimately business first. We have social aims and objectives,but we also want to actually make a difference. We are just normal businesses who chose to do something different with our profits.
What is the biggest driver in your career?
Chris: I like to do things first, push boundaries and do things that people say can’t be done. They said a social enterprise security company would never work and you couldn’t produce a social enterprise gin, but clearly they were wrong. To change the social enterprise landscape you need to prove what can be done.