FAMILY businesses will help Scotland weather the Brexit storm according to a member of a prominent housebuilding dynasty who has become an authority on the sector.

Marie Mickel, a shareholder in Mactaggart and Mickel, reckons family businesses have a long-term commitment to the country which means they will be able to make a vital contribution at a time of upheaval.

“Family businesses are one of the forces that will help us weather Brexit, whenever it happens,” she said.

Recalling the “enormous loss” she experienced after leaving the board of her family’s business in 2011, Ms Mickel said such firms “tend to look long term which acts as a source of stability in uncertain times”.

She noted many sector players belong to the group of small and medium sized enterprises that power domestic economic activity. The fact most are focused on the home market gives them powerful incentives to invest in Scotland.

“SME family businesses UK wide have about 18 per cent exposure to international markets, and only 7% of that is dependent on Europe, which means they have a great dependence on UK markets,” added Ms Mickel.

The focus on what is a competitive market means family businesses place an emphasis on innovation and skills and on improving their practices that is good for the wider economy.

“I think that it’s those stable, long term, predominantly SME, UK market businesses that are going to be one of the things that help us,” said Ms Mickel, who has advised a wide range of family firms after since holding a boardroom role at MacTaggart and Mickel.

Research by the Institute for Family Business has underlined the contribution the sector makes to UK plc. It found around 4.8 million family businesses contributed £598 billion to UK GDP in 2017 – 28% of the total.

However, Ms Mickel said common characteristics of family firms mean they make a contribution that may not be captured by such numbers.

Family firms tend to be driven by considerations of longevity rather than short term profit and are not beholden to City investors.

“They tend to be more responsible business-wise … towards their employees, their suppliers and their communities,” noted Ms Mickel.

MacTaggart and Mickel demonstrated this during the deep downturn in the sector from 2008 triggered by the global credit crunch, during which redundancies were a last resort.

“We didn’t make the decision on redundancies probably as quickly as we should have,” observed Ms Mickel.

Family firms tend to keep their headquarters in the place they are established, meaning they often have a huge influence on the communities in which they are based, often in rural areas.

Against that backdrop, Ms Mickel is concerned that not enough is being done in Scotland to promote the health of the family business sector.

Some feel the development effort in Scotland has focused too much on encouraging people to start firms in what are seen as modern industries, such as software development, rather than making the most of the businesses we have.

“Yes, we need start-ups but I would like to see much more focus at government level, at Scottish Enterprise level, at regional level on business continuity … not just in terms of finance for growth, which is a huge part of the start-up world,” said Ms Mickel.

Family firms need more support to help them to continue to grow, diversify and innovate. The regulatory and tax environments need to be made as supportive as possible with red tape cut to a minimum.

Ms Mickel knows well the kind of highs and lows that members of business families can experience after spending the bulk of her working life in the sector.

She recalls the pleasure she felt seeing the family name on housing developments as a child and getting to help to dig big holes on sites.

Playing an important part in the development of the firm in sales and marketing and communications roles from 2002 to 2011 was rewarding.

But she left her job with Mactaggart and Mickel amid difficult circumstances.

“Leaving the family business, for me it was an enormous loss and it came at the same time as my divorce from my first husband, so there was a lot of tension; it was very tough with two small children,” recalled Ms Mickel.

On the reasons for her departure from the firm, she noted: “There was a pretty complex transition going on from generation three to generation four. Anyone who works in a family business will know that manoeuvring the business successfully and stably while ensuring that the emotional fabric of the family is held together during transition is really complex.”

Armed with a degree in English from Strathclyde university and a masters in communications from the University of Technology in Sydney, Ms Mickel had no fixed plan when she left the firm.

The move into consulting came amid a period during which Ms Mickel did training in areas such as coaching and the role of directors. Discussions with family business sector leader Martin Stepek encouraged her to try to play a part in its development.

“I was empathic to how complex it could be discussing the world where business meets family and money can amplify some of those discussions. And I understood well that bringing out into the open things that had previously been unsaid is very hard.

“And I felt I owed something to the sector.”

While every business is different, Ms Mickel has found some themes recur in her dealings with families.

These include succession, or what she terms business continuity issues, and discussions about what the business is for.

“Setting an ownership vision; why do we own the business together … and from that creating a robust business plan. It still surprises me to how many successful Scottish family businesses don’t have a plan that goes beyond a year.”

Working out what issues need discussed may not be simple.

“Often it’s hard to illuminate what’s really going on underneath. Sometimes I help people with problems they didn’t even know they had.”


What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

We travelled across Japan last year for our honeymoon, its an incredible blend of old and new and culturally very different from the UK. In Niseko we were lucky enough to ski at night through the trees, it was one of the most joyful experiences of my life.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

Journalism. I have an inquisitive mind and I find great pleasure in language and word play. I may have been accused of verbosity and linguistic pedantry from time to time too.

What was your biggest break in business?

Being asked to join the board as a non executive director of an owner managed business in Colorado (Triple Crown Sports) when I was eight months pregnant with my third child. Says a lot about the mindset of corporate America!

What was your worst moment in business?

Leaving the family business, I grieved for the loss for a few years afterwards.

Who do you most admire and why?

Margaret Heffernan, an American author living in the UK. Her books live in the business psychology section of the book shop. She is a CEO, entrepreneur and professional speaker. She writes on the difficulty of being a female human who is motivated to illuminate the way to create more responsible business practices. Her motto is “Let’s not play the game, lets change it”, anyone who knows me will be smiling right now.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to? What was the last film you saw?

Book - ‘How to Do Nothing, Resisting the Attention Economy’ by Jenny Odell.

Music - My 13-year-old daughter and her step dad tend to be in charge of that, so it ranges from the Foo Fighters to the charts. They tease me mercilessly as I only have yoga music on my phone.

Film - The Joker