Thought Leadership : Don’t look back in anger


In a sliding-doors world, Gary Campbell CA might have been one of the UK’s great tech entrepreneurs. Instead, the latest twist of his multi-faceted career takes him back to his roots, as CEO of the Crofting Commission where, typically, his eyes are fixed on the future

It is often said everyone has a great story to tell. The sort of story that makes the listener or reader do a double-take. Gary Campbell CA doesn’t have just one such story – he has enough to fill a book.

Had the cards fallen differently, we might have been talking about Campbell as one of the UK’s leading tech entrepreneurs. Back in 2000, a year before Apple launched iTunes, he co-founded the first online platform to let people pay for individual song downloads. That technology was also adapted to create a site where people could upload their CVs, and where an algorithm would match them with suitable roles and employers. This was three years before LinkedIn.

He also co-founded Scotland’s first internet radio station, was the managing director of a company that revolutionised how hospital bins were designed and even ran the Official Loch Ness Monster Sightings Register.

Somewhere within all of this, Campbell tried to become a CA, quit after a year, went back nine years later, qualified, and then spent 13 years as a visiting lecturer at ICAS. All of which we will come to later.

This year, however, Campbell has become the new CEO of the Crofting Commission, heading a regulatory body whose members look after more than 750,000 hectares across the Highlands and Islands, which is roughly equal to 10% of Scotland landmass. His ambition is for the commission to play an increasingly important role in helping those living on Scotland’s 21,500 crofts to use that land both for themselves and for the betterment of the national economy and environment.

“One of the first things I wanted to understand is what is the value of crofting to Scotland. Not just monetarily, but also its impact in terms of community and the environment. Nobody has ever done that. So we are working on a future vision for crofting that will take us through to 2036 and the 150th anniversary of the Crofters Holdings Act of 1886. It will prepare us for the future,” he says.

“Potentially the big win for Scotland is the common grazing land [run by crofters], which is 500,000 hectares. It’s not what you would describe as good agricultural land. But there is huge potential for wind farms and hydro energy. There are also newer initiatives like reforestation, peatland restoration and carbon-credit trading which didn’t exist 20–30 years ago.

“It’s up to us as a regulator to ensure that there are fair and equitable developments, so that crofters and landlords get their fair share. And if that land is helping towards the common good, in terms of energy production and carbon reduction, then we would ideally like to see some sort of Highland dividend and ensure it is properly regulated. Equally, the people of Scotland invest £40m [through Scottish government expenditure on croft businesses], it’s 10% of Scotland’s landmass, and what are they getting back for that?”

Community care

For those who don’t know, what exactly is a croft? “The old adage is that a croft is a small patch of land, surrounded by legislation,” says Campbell.

More literally, a key part of the aforementioned Crofters Holdings Act is that a croft can stay within a family, who cannot be evicted by a landlord so long as they are working the land. This was done to preserve communities and to stop one person, or a small group of people, from buying it all up.

However, if the crofts are mostly used for grazing, could or should they be rewilded instead? “A lot of well-meaning people will talk about rewilding,” he says, “but crofters have worked this land for decades in a way that is totally sustainable.

“For example, if you don’t manage the land, deer move in – and deer harbour ticks that can spread Lyme disease. But if you bring in sheep to graze, then the number of ticks decreases because sheep eat ticks. Also, ticks can’t get through a sheep’s fleece, so they die.”

“The man who ran the VC fund said, ‘It all sounds great but I think the internet’s over because of the dot-com crash. If you’d come here six months ago I’d have given you £2m”

Campbell only learned the role was available because somebody mentioned it on LinkedIn, but he was an obvious candidate, having grown up on his family’s croft in Taynuilt, Argyll. Although he clearly understands what it means to be a crofter, as a teenager his ambition was to work in the music industry, and for a while he ran his own mobile disco business in Argyll.

“My parents said that if I wanted to run my own business then I should study accountancy,” he says. “This was the 1980s, when unemployment was very high in Scotland. I remember asking a lecturer how many people in his accountancy class went on to find a job. He said everyone except one fella who’d quit the course and gone off to Spain to become a waiter.”

Campbell then went to university in Glasgow where he continued DJing and managed a couple of bands, before his first stab at becoming a CA: “I had a trainee role at Arthur Andersen, the firm that everyone wanted to work for at that time. But I hated it. I’d had enough of doing exams.”

Instead, he went back to music. “In 1996 I helped set up the country’s first internet radio station with Highlander Internet Radio, which became Scottish Internet Radio. I also did a stint as a BBC radio presenter in the late ’90s.”

His partner in the station was Mark Monaghan, a musician: “Mark said that one of the things that annoyed him intensely was the fact that if you wanted to play an album track, you had to buy a whole album or CD. So we paid for and developed an online database where musicians could upload tracks individually, and people could download them for 35p each.

“It was also a way of giving control back to the musicians at a time when people could download music for free through Napster. I’d done a deal with Worldpay and the platform worked. We were using the radio station to promote it.”

By that point, Campbell had also decided he wanted to finish what he’d started nine years earlier and become a fully-fledged CA. Thankfully, EY was willing to give him another shot, so he joined the firm as a trainee.

“With the internet business, we were doing exactly the sort of things we would have advised clients to do as an accountant with EY,” says Campbell, “like bringing in an angel investor.”

That investor was Alex Watt CA, who was also a TPE (Test of Professional Expertise) level controller at ICAS. “Alex had a background in recruitment and said why don’t we use the same database and adapt it,” says Campbell. “So we would take people’s CVs, put them online and match them to jobs. We had one site called for the UK and for America.

“We would offer things such as a CV writing service and companies could post jobs on the site. I suppose it was the very beginnings of using algorithms and AI for recruitment.”

So, what went wrong? “We went to see a UK-based VC fund in June 2000,” says Campbell. “The man who ran the fund said, ‘It all sounds great but I think the internet’s over because of the dot-com crash. If you’d come here six months ago I’d have given you £2m…’ We’d been going at it for four years, but we just couldn’t raise any money.”

Campbell relates this story without any hint of bitterness or regret. “I always quote the Oasis song, Don’t Look Back in Anger. You can’t change the past. What it taught me was that in business multiple people can have the same ideas at the same time, but you need an element of luck, the right contacts and access to finances.

“What I also learned is that you have to move on. Everything that people now talk about around ‘fail fast’, ‘minimum viable product’ and ‘pivot’, is absolutely true.”

Noise annoys

So Campbell pivoted. And one of those pivots was becoming a visiting lecturer at ICAS. “I was teaching TPE. Anyone who passes the TPS [Test of Professional Skills] level is as competent as any accountant on the planet. Teaching TPE, and how you turn that knowledge into commercial reality, was great. I absolutely loved it.”

He applied everything he’d learned to his next job, as the MD of Environmental Hygiene Products in Tain. The Chairman and founder, Roy Jones, wanted to build up the business for sale before he turned 65. The company had secured an NHS contract, but there was a problem with its metal bins in hospital wards around the country.

This article was first published by ICAS at the following URL: