Scottish Development International: Stake a Claim for Scotland - Lena Wilson

Scotland – already on the map as a good place to do business – is making great strides in helping domestic businesses access global markets. Scottish Development International CEO Lena Wilson tells Jim Banks why.

Scotland is a thriving home for key industries like financial services and advanced technology, and is a hub of investment for oil and gas companies, but its business community is not content to merely reflect on the success it has had in attracting foreign investment. Scottish Development International (SDI), which is charged with attracting foreign businesses to invest in Scotland, is spreading the word about the country’s significant strengths and world-leading research and development capabilities to attract more business and forge greater ties between Scottish companies and partners around the world.


‘It’s a daunting task, but the momentum is behind it,’ says SDI CEO Lena Wilson. ‘Our main challenge is to make sure that we maximise high-value foreign direct investment into Scotland and encourage Scottish firms to be more outward-looking, especially in emerging markets.’

Formerly of the World Bank, where she advised many countries on foreign investment strategy, Wilson is now leading SDI’s drive to promote Scottish interests in six key industries: financial services, life sciences, energy, tourism, food and drink, and digital markets.‘ These are areas of disproportionate global growth and in which Scotland has a deep-rooted strategic proposition that gives it a global advantage.'

Energy in reserve

In the energy sector, for instance, there are many opportunities beyond the country’s well-known oil and gas reserves. ‘There is a lot of potential for renewable energy development. Scotland has 25% of Europe’s wind, and the tidal patterns make wave energy a real possibility,’ Wilson says.

‘We also need to commercialise our academic excellence. We publish more research studies per capita than almost any other country, and we have renowned centres for research in diabetes, cardiovascular disease and now translational medicine.’ The role of academia is, she believes, crucial to Scotland’s success going forward, and she is glad to see the growing collaboration between universities, international companies and government bodies both at home and abroad.

Play to your strengths

Companies investing abroad often have different criteria, and to prosper in a competitive global marketplace SDI has understood that Scotland cannot compete in certain sectors. Its target is certainly not the kind of investment that seeks labour cost arbitrage. ‘Everyone wants some of the same action, and competition is growing internationally, which is why we are positioning Scotland as a high value-add location, targeting high-level jobs,’ says Wilson. ‘It is not a cheap location for low-value jobs, so we must have a very focused strategy.’

‘We want to play in the markets where we can truly differentiate ourselves. A private company would look at ROI. My shareholders are the Scottish taxpayers and my ROI is economic value.’ Having seen Scotland voted 'European Region of the Future in 2008' by the Financial Times, and Glasgow and Edinburgh named among the ten best cities in which to do business, Wilson feels that now is the time to press home the message to international investors – aided by a government willing to align its policy with SDI’s goals.

A further advantage in SDI’s strategy to develop globally, especially into emerging markets, is its ability to reach out through the Globalscot network, which brings together over 900 influential business leaders who are committed to creating opportunities for Scotland. SDI can certainly look back at its successes with pride. In the last five years it has facilitated 280 inward investments to Scotland, brought in £1.1 billion of direct investment, and created or safeguarded 30,000 jobs. But for Wilson, this must be seen as the start of its journey, not the end.

Lena Wilson, CEO of Scottish Development International.