By Scott Wright

HAVING spent 20 year in financial roles in the City of London, it might not have seemed like a natural move for Katerina Brown to embark on a career in Scottish heritage.

But it seems to have been the ideal preparation for the chief operating officer of the National Trust for Scotland, who has found the expertise she built up in the corporate world to be a perfect fit for life at the venerable institution.

“The theme of my background is asset management: looking after and getting the most from assets, whether they are physical or financial,” Ms Brown told The Herald.

“I have worked in the energy sector in both gas thermal and renewable companies and lots of financial services as well. The rigour of looking after and getting the best from those [assets] is what I brought to the trust.”

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She added: “I guess what attracted me is that it is such an iconic brand. I moved to Scotland in 2014 and this [role] just seemed to marry up my love of Scotland and being able to look after assets and being really rigorous in how they are managed.

“I just felt I could bring a huge amount to it. It was a big struggling national organisation, and I wanted to help. I still do.”

Looking back, the Trust was certainly in need of some TLC when Ms Brown arrived two and a half years ago, shortly after Philip Long succeeded Simon Skinner as chief executive. The enforced closure of its 100-plus visitor attractions that span the length and breadth of Scotland, from Culzean Castle in Ayrshire to Falkland Palace in Fife, in the first months of the pandemic and subsequent loss of income sparked a wave of redundancies, which would have been higher without emergency cash support from the Scottish Government.

The current headcount stands at around 780 off-season, which is supplemented by up to 1,200 seasonal staff, in additional to around 2,000 volunteers.

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During lockdown the Trust relied on supporters maintaining memberships even though they were unable to visit its properties, with a campaign, Save Our Scotland, launched to help safeguard the future of its venues.

“We were clinging on to the loyalty of people, and I am hugely grateful they did remain loyal for the large part,” said Ms Brown, who also highlighted the importance of a one-off grant from the Scottish Government and the furlough scheme.

“That was the biggest worry – when could we open again? How long would we stay closed?”

With Covid restrictions continuing to be a feature of life throughout 2021 and into the start of 2022, the recovery has been gradual.

Ms Brown said the Trust had planned for a “modest” recovery, aware that it would not be able to reopen all of its properties at once. Some properties re-opened later than hoped, in part because of staff recruitment challenges.

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Now, while Covid restrictions are in the rear-view mirror, the Trust faces a challenge in the form of the cost-of-living crisis. Asked if she feared members withdrawing support because of money worries, Ms Brown said: “It is definitely a risk. The number one risk is either members don’t join us at the same level, so there’s a recruitment risk, and there’s a retention risk, that they don’t stay with us if they have joined. We have seen in the last few weeks a drop-off, of people cancelling their memberships. We are pleading to people to stay with us through winter. We generally see a seasonal dip anyway – we are just keeping an eye on it to make sure it is not deeper and longer than normal.”

The Trust runs a series of campaigns to help mitigate the potential drop-off in memberships but so far has decided not to cut prices.

“We are offering members discounts in the shops or other activities. They get free parking which is very valuable to families who regularly visit our parks and gardens,” Ms Brown said.

Memberships and entrance fees are not the only ways for raising revenue. The Trust's coffers are sustained by income from on-site shops and cafes, with weddings and filming also taking place at its venues. Income also comes from cottage rentals.

Before Covid, the Trust was generating income of around nearly £60 million, which Ms Brown hopes can be achievable again within the current three -year budget.

This income generation is essential to the Trust’s ability to maintain its properties – an “enormous” drain on capital – and for when it wants to invest in something out of the ordinary.

“Sometimes we want to take a big step forward and we want to do something great [and] transform a property,” Ms Brown said. “That comes under our capital projects investment, and for that we have options on how we pay for those.

“Balancing those options is definitely my job and I am trying to educate the teams on balancing those books. That is a level of transparency I don’t think we have had before.

“And it is certainly something that will help maximise the amount of money we can spend on doing these bigger capital projects. There are quite a few in the pipeline, but the priority is the maintenance and making sure everything is safe and sound and thriving, as well as investing in some of the slower-burn capital projects.”

One major project the Trust is currently focused on is the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed Hill House in Helensburgh, which is effectively being protected from the elements by a giant mesh structure, known as the Hill House Box.

Other projects include the “multi-year” restoration of Canna House on the Isle of Canna on the west coast of Scotland, where the Trust has been bequeathed a range of artefacts, and a “multi-million-pound” initiative to instal a new walkway to access the volcanic rock columns at the Staffa National Nature Reserve.

The Trust’s efforts to raise capital will be challenged by the recent hikes in energy bills, which Ms Brown described as “eye-watering”.

Ms Brown, who noted that the Trust buys energy from renewable sources through a Scottish Government procurement framework, said: “We are looking around at trying to minimise the usage at properties, but it is a balance as well, with having to keep heat and light on to protect them. There is a temperature below which we can’t turn things down or we will damage the property. There is a limit to that.”

She added that the Trust is pursuing an environmental strategy under which a dedicated team will be setting up a carbon reduction plan, with the aim of reaching net zero by 2031. There are some charging points for electric vehicles at Trust locations, and talks have been held with manufacturers over the potential purchase of electric vehicles.


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

Coming from a line of doctors on my mother’s side, I have always wanted to be a doctor to help make things better for people. 
I’ve since realised I can still do that by improving the financial standing of the companies they own, or work for.
Managing staff and developing the careers of individuals has also been a rewarding element of my roles, so I feel I am still able to help people in other ways.

What was your biggest break in business?
Being appointed to the role of senior vice president, head of EMEA, at Northern Trust, a large US corporation based in Canary Wharf in London, was a turning point.
It opened up a whole new geography of finance which allowed me to lead finance acquisitions across the UK, Europe and the Middle East.
The cultural challenges faced and obstacles we overcame have made other UK-based challenges seem relatively far easier in comparison.

What was your worst moment in business?
Leaving Enron in September 2001, at its peak. Many questioned my decision as it was a sector leading, unparalleled company at the time.
What transpired was that really was the peak, the company then collapsed, and the global accounting rules have since been re-written.

Who do you most admire and why?
My late father, who sadly passed in October. His personal humility, combined with entrepreneurial skills, managing and leading teams of engineers across several continents, as well as being a father of five, is a great example to us all. 

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to? 

Easy Peasy Puppy Squeasy to help us navigate early days of owning a puppy! 
Quite an eclectic range in our house– rock, pop, classical, Greek.