PAUL Wheelhouse, the minister for business, innovation and energy, has told a gathering of family business leaders that they make a “unique and powerful contribution” to the Scottish economy.

The Scottish Family Business Conference 2016 heard from a range of speakers including printing entrepreneur John Watson and Ed Monaghan, the first chief executive of housebuilder Mactaggart and Mickel from outside the family.

Addressing delegates in Glasgow yesterday, Mr Wheelhouse said that the Scottish Government was committed to supporting family businesses, in spite of the economic conditions set in motion by the Brexit vote.

“Family businesses are fundamental to Scotland’s economic success,” he said. “They make up a vast proportion of the business community and if we’re going to make the progress we need to then all sections of the economy need to play their part.

“And family businesses in particular can make a difference for one very distinct reason: you have sustainable growth at your very core.”

Mr Wheelhouse added that many family businesses were “here for the long-haul” though many faced succession challenges.

He also highlighted the role they play in local communities. The conference, organised by Family Business United, focused on growing and sustaining family businesses, and how to manage a sale should the opportunity arise.

This topic was at the core of the opening keynote by Mr Watson, who sold his fifth-generation family business JW Printers, to US giant Multi-Color Corporation for about £15m.

Mr Watson discussed the foundations of his family business and outlined his initial achievements. His engaging presentation was a whistle-stop tour of a business that overcame numerous challenges in the printing sector before he eventually sold up.

He mentioned the purchase of a cutting-edge printing press that was so heavy it required £100,000 floor reinforcements. “We couldn’t afford that, so we rolled our sleeves up and did it ourselves.”

The anecdote served to highlight the sacrifices family businesses must make to survive.

JW Printers, which was a specialist printer mainly for the whisky industry, has had many highs and lows, from installing a £2.5m Heidelberg press that was the first in the world of its kind, to RBS pulling its business from the printing industry in 2008, which prompted a move to Clydesdale Bank.

Through it all, Mr Watson said he always put the customer first.

“Companies get so big they forget about the customers,” he said. “They focus on share price, but if you concentrate on the customer then it will all come back with jam on it.”

Mr Watson said that any business leading in its field would become an acquisition target: “If you’re good at what you do you’ll attract attention.”

And he said that one thing he’d learned as the business had grown was the importance of EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation) and knowing what your business is worth.

He said there family businesses would always be acquisition targets, but added: “You hope they will either sell or continue and not have to hand the keys back.”