Interview - John Gillan, chairman, Bali

The Scots are renowned for their stoicism and resourcefulness - both traits that are likely to stand them in good stead for the challenges of the coming months.

John Gillan, chairman, BALI - photo: BALI
John Gillan, chairman, BALI - photo: BALI

Someone like prime minister Gordon Brown may not have the flash and flair of his predecessor but, arguably, he wins in the credibility stakes. It is that same Scottish stoicism that helped BALI chairman John Gillan survive the last recession.

And despite a distinct tightening of the landscaping market, he believes the approach will see his firm Premier One (Land Services) through once again.

"We planned for this recession during the last one," he explains. "One of the simple lessons from the last recession was that the companies that came through with flying colours were the ones that didn't spend all their money.

"You have to get value from absolutely everything and it sounds penny-pinching but we are exceedingly busy."

Growing up in Edinburgh, Gillan has a strong link to the historic city and has spent much of his life in the area.

He began working with the local authority as a blacksmith, before moving into management services. The Local Government Act 1988 meant Gillan became heavily involved in the changeover from in-house services to competitive tendering, and it was only when he retired at the age of 50 that he began running Premier One.

Most people would probably see retirement as a chance to relax from the pressures of work, but Gillan's move is testament to his philosophy of hard work. "Work is my hobby," he laughs.

"I used to do a fair bit of running and the philosophy is that if you're going to do it then you need to do it right.

"That is the maxim I live my life by - if you are going to do the best you can then you need to do things right."

Not many people can boast of six marathons under their belt, and it is an achievement that has to be dragged out of the self-effacing Gillan.

With a personal-best time of three hours 15 minutes, clearly this is no small feat. But Gillan is not one to shout from the rooftops, despite a long list of personal and professional successes.

"I'm not very bright, so I have to work very hard," he reveals.

"I don't consider myself to be particularly intellectual but I work very hard and I expect people to do the best within their abilities. You've also got to overcome a fear of failure - sometimes that is why we strive."

Gillan's strong management skills led to him being snapped up as a lecturer at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

He also shares his experience with students at Oatridge College as part of an annual education event.

"I hope the fact that I've come up through the ranks inspires them," says Gillan, who went back to school at the age of 23 to take O-level exams and later earned a degree in business economics from Napier University as a mature, part-time student. "They see someone sitting in a suit but the truth is that the cover doesn't always tell what's inside the book."

Encouraging young people is a keen ambition of Gillan's. And he believes the landscaping industry needs to be promoted to provide more motivation to people entering the sector.

"Society doesn't do enough to encourage aspiration and that makes me feel quite sad," explains Gillan.

"As a young person growing up in a relatively poor area of Edinburgh, I never felt any burden not to achieve - but I don't see that now."

Through his role as BALI chairman, Gillan hopes to help raise the profile of landscaping and improve skills.

"There is a British disease of not appreciating people who do things," he adds. "It is not the fashionable thing to get your hands dirty and, as an industry, we don't do enough to create a collective voice."

He adds: "If we can start to come together and look at the totality, there is an absolutely huge integrated industry. We need to increase public knowledge of what we do."

Despite having no formal qualifications in horticulture, Gillan's experience in contracts management and landscaping, along with his background in economics, means he is ideally placed to share his knowledge.

He readily admits that his approach to business can be conservative, but says it allows him and his staff to feel more confident about the future.

"There are already companies seriously suffering and we don't know when the upturn will come," he says.

"The lessons for me are very simple. Training and education are essential to invest in. It is a nice idea running about in a Bentley, but you have to earn the money first."

1966 Joins local authority in Edinburgh
1976 Joins recreation department at City of Edinburgh Council
1988 Graduates in business economics from Napier University
1996 Joins Premier One (Land Services)
1997 Becomes managing director of Premier One (Land Services)
2008 Becomes chairman of BALI

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