Sir Tom Hunter shows no sign of slowing down. We should all be thankful for this. For the former sports shoe salesman in his early 60s, who made £260 million when he sold Sports Division to JJB Sports aged 37, life has always been a whirlwind of corporate deal-making, since 2001 with West Coast Capital, and then with his various philanthropic ventures delivered through The Hunter Foundation.

It is difficult keeping up with the multifarious activities of this rather special Scotsman. He has devoted a great deal of his time to cultivating and encouraging the next generation of Scottish businesses and his passion is in helping to create those elusive ‘scale-ups’ which Scotland desperately needs but has been singularly failing to deliver.

Without any serious competition, Sir Tom is Scotland’s best-known business figure. He has been part of our national entrepreneurial firmament for 35 years, but it is his work in rescu- ing the much-loved Kiltwalk in June 2015 (with 166,000 walkers raising £47 million for charity) and his co-sponsorship of STV’s Children’s Appeal that has made him as a household name.

Sir Tom is sitting in his office- cum-sitting room at Blair Castle, the Ayrshire pile and country estate, which was once Scotland’s longest-inhabited family home. It is now the headquarters of The Hunter Foundation, the philan- thropic trust that has given away almost £150 million.

Sir Tom and Marion Hunter acquired the castle and its grounds in 2022 for the foundation. Although Sir Tom is from East Ayrshire he knew nothing about the castle before discovering its secluded grandeur.

His father was a grocer in the village of New Cumnock and instilled the ethic of mutual support for the customers and community. “He told me, ‘The people who come in the shop and buy our stuff pay our wages, so we need to take care of them, and put something back in’.”

His hero remains Andrew Carnegie, the Dunfermline-born Scot who ruthlessly made his fortune in 19th-century industrial America and then proceeded to give it all away to good causes,
a stance Sir Tom has vowed to emulate. A portrait of Carnegie by Peter Howson looks down over Sir Tom’s desk.

On a sunny May afternoon, the foundation is hosting ScaleUp Scotland’s latest ‘Pre-Scaler’ cohort of a dozen ambitious people, several of whom have come through from the Scottish Edge programme, a funding competition supported by The Hunter Foundation. Sir Tom expressed his satisfaction that the Scottish Government has agree to commit a further £1 million of funding for this programme.

ScaleUp Scotland’s three stages are: the ‘Pre-Scaler’ for start-up companies which are pre-revenue and require seed funding; ‘Scale- Ups’ with more than a couple of a million of turnover but with ambition to grow; and ‘ScaleUp 2.0’, high-growth companies which are aiming for £100 million and more of turnover.

“In order to get to the last stage of the £100 million companies, we’ve got to fill the funnel. Scottish Edge is part of this and funding early-stage companies remains the hardest aspect of the investment cycle which is the earliest stage,” Sir Tom says.

Around the globe, start-ups are typically funded by the three ‘F’s of family, friends and fools.

“We don’t have enough family, friends or fools in Scotland. In Silicon Valley they are in abundance, but we don’t have a market mechanism for it in Scotland.” This has been the reason for Scottish Edge, a competition aimed at supporting innova-
tive early-stage companies with potential to become high-growth. In its tenure it has supported 363 businesses and awarded more than £26 million.

Scottish Edge, with Round 24 going live on 14 August, is backed by Royal Bank of Scotland, the Scottish Government and Scottish Enterprise, and is run by Evelyn McDonald. “Evelyn has done a wonderful job and I’ve worked with her since her time with the Prince’s Scottish Youth Business Trust (PSYBT), which was about 25 years ago. It’s terrific.”

One recent exit has been TVSquared, the platform that can measure a television advert’s reach and frequency, which was sold to Innovid in 2022 for $160 million, and ensured money was returned to the future pot for Scottish Edge.

Why is Sir Tom still so dedicated to encouraging young companies in Scotland when he could simply enjoy the blooming flowers in his grand Ayrshire estate?

He reels off the changes of Moore’s Law, which predicted the massive exponential growth of computing power, and he now cites Artificial Intelligence (AI) as the factor that has defined business change. “We want to know where the future jobs will come from in Scotland. First and foremost, The Hunter Foundation cares about Scotland. We know a bit about business; we think that because of technology the pace of change in business is the fastest that it has ever been. And it is the slowest that it will ever be.

“I remain passionate about building strong businesses in Scotland. We believe that small agile businesses can be the disruptors. They are the job creators of the future.

“Big companies are not good at pivoting and having to take on change. Therefore, we decided some time ago that our focus would be on start-up and scale- up businesses. How do we build more in Scotland?”

When Sir Tom and his team first started focusing on this more than 20 years ago in the heyday of the Entrepreneurial Exchange, Scotland had a very poor record from a philanthropic standpoint.

“Today we have a good envi- ronment. I was speaking to the ‘Pre-Scalers’ at lunch time and I was saying that I don’t think we could do this in any other part of the world and it would be so well- received.”

He believes entrepreneurs, by their nature, want their fellow entrepreneurs to succeed.

“We couldn’t do this in London, I don’t think it can be done in Silicon Valley. It is the peer-to- peer support and learning. I really think that this is Scotland’s secret sauce. This is what we are doing here at Blair Castle.”

Bringing them to this wonderful pastoral setting in Ayrshire,

is the “icing on the cake”. Here Sir Tom has been evangelical, verging on the spiritual, when
he credits the input of Professor Norman Drummond, the founder of Columba 1400, which places leadership at the heart of systemic change.

At first, Sir Tom did not want to invest charitable finances
in bricks and mortar. But his opinion shifted when he saw
the success of Columba 1400’s residential work at Loch Lomond and Skye with the Head Teach- ers’ Leadership Academy (HTLA), which he believes has built out- standing support and confidence among Scotland’s educational leadership.

“Norman taught me, if we want to change behaviour for the bet- ter, then you’ve got to have people coming together and feeling the same in a magical environment. I learned about the importance of physical place for pulling people together.”

Since 2003, The Hunter Foundation has supported several hundred ‘values-based’ residen- tial leadership programmes with more than 1,600 Scottish head teachers.

“It’s been a great programme and the feedback from the teach- ers has been amazing,” he says.

However, Sir Tom is pressing the Scottish Government to over- turn its decision to halt HTLA’s funding. “We got a two-sentence letter from the Government saying they were stopping their funding. They didn’t have any money. We were funding it with them. So we’ve made the decision that we’ll fund it without the Government.”

Now it is the entrepreneurs’ turn to gather for an immersive residential experience at Blair Castle.

The Blairs had been in residence since the 12th century, when King William I of Scotland conferred the Barony of Blair to Jean Francois. His son William changed the name to Blair. Its Scottish heritage can be traced back to the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, when Sir David de Blair was knighted by Robert the Bruce. More straitened times in recent years has meant the Blair family have retreated to a family home which is within sight of the castle.

“Our entrepreneurs come and stay here. We have 20 bedrooms. They get to know each other, and they build up trust so that they

can be honest with each other and say: ‘How is it really going?’ And the reply is, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know how I’m going to pay the wages on Friday’. ‘I couldn’t pay them last Friday either’. So they are among friends. And that’s why we bought this won- derful place.”

Blair Castle is certainly a striking and impressive backdrop where indelible memories will have an impact on emerging entrepreneurs.

“This is a magical place. As you walk down the drive, and past the wonderful trees, and see the burn which weaves its way through the landscape, you get to this wonderful house.”

On the serious money-making business front, West Coast Capital’s business meetings are now at Blair Castle, although the administration, finance and legal teams are based in Dundonald.

“I love this two faces of life where I will wrestle you to the ground for a pound on the busi- ness side but give you a fiver on the philanthropic side.

“I’ve been a backer of Matt Moulding and THG plc since 2009 when I was losing all my money in the banking crisis. Let me say it was interesting times.

“Matt is one of the best entrepreneurs I’ve ever come across. From scratch, he and his team have built THG, the Hut Group, and the technology, into an e-commerce beauty platform and the world’s biggest nutrition platform. We did well when it floated, we sold and made profit, but we’ve retained some equity.”

West Coast Capital is also backing Sir Christopher Evans and Elipses Pharma, which is involved in cancer research. “I’ve known Chris for 30 years and he is looking at cancer drugs and disrupting the way they are brought to the market. We’ve a big position there.”

A more recent joint investment has been in Fintern which has just signed an agreement with Citibank worth hundreds of mil- lions. Fintern is an open banking credit and risk scoring application using AI “which is a fantastic opportunity for us”.

He is enjoying the success of Buzzworks, led by Kenny Blair, with its restaurant group spread across 21 locations. Meanwhile, West Coast Capital colleague Jim McMahon’s Game4Padel is delivering winners.

Sir Tom is also delighted with the progress at Winchburgh in West Lothian, with CALA Group, where a new Scottish community with 4,000 homes, schools and a park on the canal waterfront is now coming to fruition. “We’ve been 17 years at this project to get it to where it is now! And we haven’t taken a penny out yet.”

There remains deep frustration among the business community about the way the Scottish nation has been governed. With a new UK government imminent, and recent changes in the SNP leadership, this is the right time for business to press its position.

Sir Tom, who has had the ear of First Minister John Swinney, claims he is agnostic about party politics. His ‘soft power’ to influence government thinking has been prevalent for many years. However he and others have been fiercely critical of the Scottish Government’s handling of initiatives which have directly harmed business.

Sir Tom and Lord Willie Haughey’s Go Radio Business Show has become a must-listen programme in a media landscape bereft of positive business stories. While his radio pal is an avowed Labour man, Sir Tom’s party politics agnosticism has not stopped him putting the boot in when he sees the folly of politicians who make decisions and laws without consulting the business community.

“John Swinney is a great guy. We did a lot with him when he was finance minister, when he was education minister. I always judge people on what they do and not what they say. Straight away in his first week, we have got some extra money for Scottish Edge.”

In speaking about his development at Winchburgh, he says: Blair Castle in Ayrshire was once Scotland’s longest-inhabited family home. It is now the headquarters of The Hunter Foundation

A portrait of his hero, businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, looks down over Sir Tom’s desk

“This is where I would really encourage government to speak to the private sector, get to know us and trust us.

“Willie Haughey took his housing project and learning from his facilities management business, one of the biggest in the world, and is putting in an energy management system, which is going to save the planet quicker than Patrick Harvie [the Scottish Green Party MSP], that’s for sure. Willie knows what he’s doing.

“Government needs to listen to folk like Willie. What does Patrick Harvie know?”

Sir Tom says we need better collaboration between policymak- ers and business. “During Nicola Sturgeon’s time, she did Scotland a disservice because she ignored the business sector.

“I think she didn’t understand it and she didn’t have the where- withal to say I need to learn here, so she didn’t bother.

“That was to Scotland’s detriment because the only way we have a civil society in Scotland is because business people and hard-working people pay their taxes.

“If we have an anti-business culture, then that means that there is less tax produced and we can’t help the people who need it. That link, which is such a simple link, was lost. I don’t think it’s lost on John Swinney or Anas Sarwar.”