Inverness Chamber Celebrates 125 years of Connecting Highland Businesses

Comments given by Stewart Nicol, Chief Executive of Inverness Chamber at our 125th Anniversary Civic Reception on 26th April 2018.

"I want to speak for a short while, taking some time to reflect on our past; note our achievements in most recent years and look to the future.

Saturday 28th April marks our 125th Anniversary.  This is a remarkable achievement and it is something appropriate to mark and celebrate tonight.  While it is inevitable at events such as this that we look back and reflect, I feel it is much more important that we consider what we have achieved as an organisation, what we are doing today and where we are going in the future.  It is important that we are always aware of the need to ensure that we are sustaining and building our relevance both to today and tomorrow’s business community. 

Inverness Chamber of Commerce came into being only five years ahead of the opening of the ‘Direct Route’ on the Highland Main Railway Line.  This fact may explain why lobbying on the region’s transport infrastructure has been a core campaign since we were founded?  I suspect our Victorian founders would be only too familiar with the rail journey from Inverness to the Central Belt as I’m not sure it has changed all that much in the last 125 years.

I’m afraid the bad news is that we haven’t been able to find out much more around the circumstances of our founding – other than it seems to relate to retail challenges from the east?  Clearly, this had nothing to do with the retail challenges relating to Inverness Shopping Park, rather, it had to do with real concerns from the city fathers around the city ladies using their state of the art connectivity to travel by train to Aberdeen for retail therapy.

While it matters where one comes from, I don’t want to focus on the past, rather on the present and the future.  What relevance does the organisation I lead have for today’s modern city of Inverness and the wider Highland Region?

I appropriately describe myself as the organisation’s first full-time Chief Executive.  On 1st September this year, I will be ten years in post and am currently the longest-serving Chief Executive in the Scottish Chamber of Commerce network.  Inverness Chamber of Commerce is not about me, but I have shaped what you see before you today.

When I started ten years ago, we had two staff - myself and Paula Nicol; who, as we often must remind people, is neither my wife nor my daughter!  We worked in an office above a garage at the bottom of Simon’s garden and shared the office with a blind dog.  In addition to the dog, we had a membership of 310; a turnover of £148k, a profit of £1,712 and reserves of £33,639.

At last week’s AGM, I was delighted to report a membership of 420; a turnover of £705k, and record levels of profits and reserves.  I now lead a growing staff team of fourteen from our soon-to-be-expanded third-floor offices in the heart of the city. 

These impressive growth figures are not just a series of numbers, each represents the achievement of my passionate and hard-working team.  Everything each of the team does every day is focused on our members; meeting their needs; growing their businesses and arguing for an environment which will help transform their business prospects.

When new businessmen and women engage with us for the first time and see all that we do, they express surprise that we are not part of a larger entity, most commonly Highland Council or HIE.  As a small private company, we don’t receive any public sector or government funding other than for the delivery of specific projects.  We are truly independent financially, organisationally and politically.  And, as many of you are aware, we stridently guard our independence in each of these areas!

I confidently assert that Inverness Chamber of Commerce truly and deliberately connects Highland Businesses in a way that no other Highland based organisation does.  Furthermore, I believe that we are the most ambitious and effective business membership organisation in the Highlands.  As a small business at the heart of that community – Inverness Chamber of Commerce gets relationships; which is why our ethos is ‘Connecting Highland Businesses’.

Inverness Chamber of Commerce has four key areas of activity which we seek to deliver to the best of our ability in support of our growing membership.  These core areas are: Membership, Events, International Trade, and our project activity which currently involves delivering the Scottish Government’s Developing the Young Workforce Programme for Inverness and Central Highland, affectionately known as DYWICH. 

Our membership offering remains strong and we keep it under constant review so that businesses of all sizes from every sector and across the whole of the Highlands and beyond obtain clear business and economic benefits from engaging with Inverness Chamber of Commerce. 

I specifically wish to acknowledge the significant support we have received over the years from an impressive number and range of Executive Partners.  We constantly review our Executive Partner offering to make sure all our partners benefit from their strong association with the most important Highland business brand, that of Inverness Chamber of Commerce.

Our annual events programme is larger, wider ranging and more impressive than ever before. I believe we don’t just deliver the best, we keep raising our game. 

For example, in a few weeks we will, once again, be joining with many of the Highlands’ Business Leaders as we celebrate the region’s most prestigious event; our annual Highland Business Dinner.  We have, in our very recent history, deliberately set out to create an outstanding event to enable our members to offer the highest standard of corporate hospitality here in this city at the heart of the Highlands. 

Our Annual Highland Business Week, featuring the Highland Spotlight exhibition and Highland Business Awards is now well established as a deserved highlight of the Highland business calendar.

However, we don’t achieve all that we do on behalf of our members in isolation.  Inverness Chamber of Commerce is actively involved in the Scottish Chamber of Commerce network of chambers across all regions of Scotland.  Working in close partnership with all the other Highland Chambers of Commerce also matters to us.

We are one of only eight Chambers in Scotland that are accredited to British Chambers of Commerce, ensuring we are uniquely placed to work for our members at both Holyrood and Westminster.  Through SCC Network International and our direct relationship with BCC we are ‘hard-wired’ to the global network of International Chambers of Commerce.  I have, over the past ten years, worked hard to enable us to support Highland-based businesses trade globally.  For the first time in our history, Highlands and Islands based businesses can have their export documentation and certification issued by a Highland chamber. 

Through Inverness Chamber International we also offer a full range of international trade services, consultancy, bespoke support and advice aimed at helping Highland businesses to grow internationally.  We were the first Scottish Chamber to send a Trade Visit to Bavaria and Munich last May; following the signing of a trade agreement between Scotland’s First Minister and her Bavarian counter-part.  We continue to develop our international activities with the delivery of the Local Export Partnership programme across the Highlands & Islands.

We have delivered a number of projects over recent years including the very successful Highlands & Islands Business Mentoring Programme and our partnership with HIE in delivery of ‘Smart Exporter’.  I’m delighted that we continue to deliver the Scottish Government’s employer-led DYW Regional Group for Inverness and Central Highland.  Delivering this project matters hugely to everyone at Inverness Chamber of Commerce.  These projects have allowed us to demonstrate true partnership working with employer groups and colleagues across the region’s Public-Sector agencies.  Through delivery of this project I am seeking to bring about real and lasting cultural change for the benefit of the region’s young people, their parents, teachers and SME’s which make up the bulk of the Highland’s business community. 

All of these activities allow Inverness Chamber of Commerce to actively campaign and lobby on critical business issues on behalf of many of you here tonight, our members.  Through utilising these combined resources, and my own activity with all forms of media in the region and across Scotland I believe we are the strongest voice of business in the Highlands.

We are all more than aware of how fortunate we are to live, work and create our community in such a fantastic city and region.  As such, it is easy to be passionate about the City of Inverness and the whole of the Highlands.

I am absolutely clear that neither the city nor the region would be what it is today without the input, support and challenge of Inverness Chamber of Commerce. Inverness Chamber of Commerce had critical input to much that has been ongoing in the city from the mid 90’s till today.

I have continued and expanded this role and as I mentioned believe that I have developed Inverness Chamber of Commerce to become the strongest voice of business not just for the city of Inverness but also for the whole of the Highlands.  I have spent much of the last two years building our organisational capacity and strengthening our team to ensure we can continue to be effective on behalf of our members.

From the outset, I engaged with and developed our relationship with all forms of local and national media.  In doing so, I had one clear objective, to lobby and campaign on behalf of our members and to champion the cause of local business.  I believe we have achieved much from our interventions.  Some of our campaigning has been a partnership with like minded partners and some, where we have been the lone voice arguing for better.

Transport and digital connectivity will long be on our agenda I suspect.  With the rapid development of artificial intelligence and robotics some of our future influence will be in areas we can’t imagine today.

My closing comments are that, while I take great satisfaction from what is going on in the city, I still feel we should be doing so much better than we are?  We all know each other and, when we are challenged from out-with, we have proven time and again that we can respond to any challenges.  And yet there are in my opinion too many examples of things taking too long to change and too many occasions when we seem to live with a solution or a situation that is quite bluntly unacceptable.

In such a small and well-formed business and civic environment, too many of us seem to have an appalling capacity to operate within deeply ingrained silos.  Neither do we set high enough standards for ourselves, our organisations and our civic space. 

To move this region and city forward, we need to have high personal and organisational ambitions.  We need to demonstrate strong leadership and we need to collaborate, perhaps in a way we have never done thus far.  I believe all of us have the capacity to do that and in doing so will achieve great things for the city of Inverness and the whole of the Highlands and Islands.  I look forward to Inverness Chamber of Commerce being part of that success, perhaps even for the next 125 years."

We are delighted to be celebrating this milestone with all of you, and we look forward to welcoming you to our busy and varied events programme or speaking to our membership team about how we can offer benefits that help you manage and grow your business.