Investing in Yourself

An Interview with Andrew and Michael Donaldson

James Donaldson & Sons is a family-owned business that started life as a Tayport timber merchant in 1860 and now have 1000+ employees. In December 2019, they won the Outstanding Contribution award at The Herald Scottish Family Business Awards.

Led by Managing Director Scott Cairns over the last 8 years the company has seen turnover roughly double to nearly £200m. The group has announced that Cairns will be stepping down, with Andrew Donaldson succeeding him as group Managing Director and Michael Donaldson stepping into the role of company Chairman.

We caught up with Andrew and Michael to find out more about their recent overseas learning experience as part of the Saltire Leadership Programme and to hear more about their motivation to drive the company forward for future generations.

You recently travelled overseas with Entrepreneurial Scotland, as part of a peer-learning cohort who spent a week in Boston, immersed in entrepreneurial culture and learning at Babson College and in the City. How did the programme help you?

Andrew: The change of mindset is one of the critical things you get from a programme like this. We have been brought up in our family business and once you get in the bubble of a business you kind of absorb its way of doing things and become a little ‘institutionalised’ by its history and the way it works. Taking time away and understanding others makes you question that.

The inspiring part is the mix of people on the cohort – for example people working in very different businesses; same age as me, doing the same thing in terms of entrepreneurial leadership, but with different scale of business in different industries. We can learn a huge amount from each other; they’ve inspired me to think we could embrace more agile working practices.

There was an element of envy in the speed that smaller business can adjust if they want – which as part of a bigger business we can’t. The flip side is we have a really stable, financially strong business and I am sure some smaller businesses envy that about us.

Part of the observation from my perspective is that we, as leaders of a larger organisation, can be quite isolated in our office despite being surrounded by a great team and 900+ employees. By contrast, others on the cohort had small and cosy teams of just 3-10 people or a whole team of just 4 people operating out of one space.

That gives them an interesting operational and decision making model that is very different to our own.

The residential learning week gave me a chance to have open conversations in a relaxed environment on issues others are dealing with – and that helped me hear answers to questions I had not even thought of asking. That’s the bit where ES and SE provide some really valuable support – the cohorts they give us access to are the 16 or so other leaders we can lean on and learn from.

I see membership of ES as that ‘incubator space’ for us as a larger business - facilitating access to entrepreneurial mindset in ourselves and in others we meet.

"We were lucky to be a part of a small cohort; there were no egos and a great deal of openness and honesty. The cohort size forced everyone to be open – no-one was hiding."

Having travelled to Boston with specific objectives in mind, how did the experience support or challenge your thinking?

A: When you take your questions to somewhere like Babson, it’s a completely independent response you are going to get to your question – until you get there no one knows anything about you or your business so there is no baggage and you get an honest response to your conundrum.

Having somebody express your thoughts in some form of common, recognisable context normalises it and builds your confidence.

M: We took the questions we wanted to be answered – but most importantly we were willing to ask new questions as the week unfolded – we had not expected to ask questions about being ‘entrepreneurial monkeys’ for example!

You were joined on the programme by entrepreneurial leaders from sectors as diverse as fintech, HR, food & drink, and with a range of experience from start-ups to yourselves at over 150 years old! Was this helpful to you and if so in what way(s)?

A: This was completely different and offered a much more rounded experience and perspective. If it had all been ‘gorillas’ (larger businesses) we would not have had the inspiration that smaller businesses bring.

We were lucky to be a part of a small cohort; there were no egos and a great deal of openness and honesty. The cohort size forced everyone to be open – no-one was hiding.

"People often think investing in ‘you’ is a waste of time and money for the business, whereas it is the complete opposite."

Reflecting on the programme since returning, to what extent do you feel the programme has helped you develop entrepreneurial thinking to plan for the future, despite uncertainty?

M: We continue to plan for an uncertain future! At some point in the next five years we are due another downturn; Brexit could be fantastic or it could instigate the next recession…

Being sixth generation and wanting to last another six generations or more without risking the ‘family jewels’ means the mindset is one of constantly looking over our shoulder and being aware of what is around us. But it also means we are quite conservative regarding uncertainty and I feel more aware now of how quickly some businesses move and I’d like to try to bring some of that speed into our business.

A: The programme has helped with building on me as an individual with confidence to lead so that I can be bold and ambitious and don’t think of change as a daft idea! It’s important that as a leader, I have the confidence to be able to try it – what’s the worst that could happen – going to Babson gives you confidence in your own thought process.


How important do you feel it is for entrepreneurial leaders to invest in themselves if they share Scotland’s ambition to become part of the most entrepreneurial society in the world?

A: As Karen Ayas - one of the entrepreneur/lecturers we met at Babson College - said, “first and foremost you have to invest in yourself – then the family then the business”.

M: Everyone looks to you at the top of your business to know the answers - so we have to invest in ourselves to be in that position.

A: People often think investing in ‘you’ is a waste of time and money for the business, whereas it is the complete opposite – what you get out of it is not always clear when you go into it, but that is ok – as we were encouraged at Babson, I am going to ‘allow myself to wonder before I wander’.

M: By going away you are not guaranteed to learn something, but you might – by staying at home you are guaranteed to learn nothing.

The brothers are already embracing global mindset, international insight and cohort experiences more habitually in their culture, travelling overseas for further insight this past Autumn and extending the opportunity of international, cohort learning to other key people on their leadership team.

Find out more about the Babson College modules here and apply to join the Saltire Leaders Programme here