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Scotland vs Denmark: Global companies. Fight!

27 Apr

1361738071_irn-bruIn the conversations around Scottish independence, Scotland often gets compared to Norway. This is mostly because of similar populations, comparable levels of gingerness, and of course the oil.

If Scotland did gain independence, we would never end up wildly oil-rich like the Norwegians, since we are clearly past “peak oil”. The general consensus seems to be that the reduction in “subsidy” from the UK government would be more or less offset by us taking 90% of the oil tax revenues, leaving us financially in a status quo. Gross over-simplification, but bare/bear* with me.

I prefer to look at another Scandinavian country for comparison – one which is similarly comparable population-wise, but doesn’t have the black-swan event of finding a trillion dollars worth of oil in the back garden: Denmark.

One question keeps creeping to to my mind when I casually make this comparison: why has Denmark (population ~5.6 Million) got so many globally recognised companies, compared to Scotland (population 5.3 Million)?

Try this exercise: name the top global Danish companies you can think of off the top of your head. Maybe you can’t name many, but you’d probably be surprised to discover how many companies you have heard of day-to-day are actually Danish. Then try the same with global Scottish companies. This is not meant to be an exhaustive review – rather an exercise in finding “global companies you have heard of.”

Here is my attempt below.


Novozymes – global biotech company – employs 6000 people in 30 countries.

Novo Nordisk – known for diabetes treatments – employs 38,000 people around the world.

Genmab – admittedly not one most people would have heard of (I have because of my pharma/biotech background) – but it’s exactly the sort of mid-sized biotech company with promising drugs and partnerships that Scotland (actually the whole of the UK) is lacking.

Maersk – chuffing huge company doing lots of oil and shipping related activities. Apparently employs 89,000 people worldwide.

Carlsberg – yes we all know the beer of questionable quality that the Danes pretend they hate to see leave, but it’s really a very big drinks company employing around 45,000 people worldwide.

Vestas – it’s the largest wind turbine company in the world, whose market share is apparently decreasing due to increased global competition (I’ll guess from China) but it’s still top dog, and the company that I (at least) hear most often in discussion about wind energy.

Clothing –  maybe no mega giants, but I’m constantly surprised by the number of brands I know that turn out to be Danish. e.g. Hummel and Jack and Jones (part of a bigger group called Bestseller).

Internet companies – ok, they all seem to hot-foot it off to Silicon Valley as soon as they do well so they don’t really count, but quite a few decent tech companies started in Denmark – e.g. customer care darling, Zendesk. Podio was also born in Copenhagen, but sold out a couple of years ago.

Lego – coolest toy company in the world? ‘Nuff said!


Have we got any global healthcare companies based in Scotland? The only one I could think or was ProStrakan, and they seem to have been acquired by a Japanese company since I last looked at them. I can’t think of any others.

Drinks companies – we used to have White & MacKay – it’s not really on Carlsberg’s scale, and it’s owned by United Breweries Group of India now anyway. I suppose we have Barr (they make Irn Bru don’t you know) but I don’t really think they are particularly global and they tried to sell themselves, sorry I mean merge, with Britvic recently anyway. We have lots of globally known whisky brands, but most of them are owned by non-Scottish parent companies.

Shipping – nope. I think we just desperately cling to making warships for the UK navy. No global players there.

Banking – well 10 years ago we could have pointed to Royal Bank of Scotland and Bank of Scotland with pride. Now they are an embarrassment. There are a few other big finance companies based in Scotland, such as Scottish Widows, but not exactly world-known companies. Ach crap, I just looked up Widows and even they are a subsidiary of Lloyds. Oh well.

Wind power – nope, none that I know of. We just beg for Vestas to come build something in Dundee.

Clothing – well I suppose we have tartan, and Harris tweed. Still, no global companies I can think of. A few globally known brands like Pringle and, uhhh, did I mention kilts are Scottish?

Transportation – I GOT ONE!! Yeah baby – Stagecoach is based in Perth. YES! IN YOUR FACE DENMARK! HEY DENMARK – YOU GOT A BUS COMPANY? NO? LOSERS!!

Oil stuff – ok we have Wood Group based in Aberdeen. They’re big (I think), but they don’t really have that “heard of globally” thing about them. Given how much oil we have in the backyard, it’s kinda surprising to me we didn’t end up with a really big oil company based in Scotland, the way Norway has Statoil.

Internet companies – actually, next time some d*ckhead tells you all Internet companies have to be based in London or they will die, ask them what the UK’s highest-valuation Internet company is. They’ll probably say Huddle, Mind Candy or Satago, but you can tell them about Skyscanner – based in Edinburgh. What – the not-that interesting fairly old flight comparison website that has presumably been killed by Expedia and Kayak? Yes – that one. It’s doing rather well in fact and recently took funding from Sequoia Capital, the most successful Internet company VC firm in the world, valuing it at $800 M – in fact it’s their only UK investment to date I think. I hope they don’t relocate to the States.

Lastly honourable mention for Rockstar Games – publisher of games such as Grand Theft Auto and based in Edinburgh (where they fled to after deciding they were too cool for Dundee, where they started). Nevertheless, they’re not really Scottish any more, having been bought by Take Two Interactive – a US company. Well, at least they still make games in Scotland.


So there we have it. Denmark has a ton of massive global companies and seems to really punch above its weight given the country’s size, whereas Scotland has a couple of finance companies that nearly destroyed the country’s economy, and a nice bus company.


So the question is – why? No time to speculate here, but it’s a subject I would love to study more if I had the time. Doubtless others have already tried, so if you know any references I should have a look at – please mention so in the comments. In the meantime, I blame London.






* I never know which one it is and I can’t be bothered looking it up any more.

London the Primate City

5 Apr

A blog post about Munich is basically an excuse to post pictures of girls in dirindls

I’m in Munich, Germany at the moment, working on a new Internet company that is growing in leaps and bounds. We’re hiring lots and lots of people, both technical (developers) and non-technical. Something in particular about this interests me – Munich isn’t Germany’s first city, it isn’t even its second – in fact Munich is the 3rd largest city in Germany behind Hamburg and the capital, Berlin.

Why does this so fascinate me? Well, can you imagine setting up a brand new Internet company in the UK’s 3rd city? According to Wikipedia, Glasgow is the UK’s 3rd city. In fact, let’s forget Glasgae for a second, can you imagine anyone ever setting up a brand new super successful Internet company in Birmingham, the UK’s 2nd city? Nope, neither can I.

In the UK it seems that unless you’re in London, you’re nowhere. How does one city get to dominate a country so much, and is it good for the UK? According to George Zipf’s theory of rank-size for an ideal distribution of city size the 2nd city should be half the size of the largest city, and the 3rd city 1/3rd the size, and so on. Mark Jefferson described “primate cities” as those that so dominate the country that they capture most of the population and economic activity in a country. Classic Primate Cities include London and Paris, whilst the most extreme example is Bangkok, which is 40 times larger than the next city.

Compare that to Germany, where Berlin has a population of 3.3 Million, Hamburg is 1.6 Million, and Munich is about 800,000. They almost perfectly follow Zipf’s Law. So which ecomony is doing the best out of UK, France and Germany? Yeah I won’t bother answering that…

Although Berlin, where my direct employers are actually based, is itself considered a bit of a European startup hub, I never get the feeling that it dominates Germany in the same was that London dominates the UK. I don’t think many of my non-British friends in the UK would seriously consider living anywhere in the country other than London. In fact, do people even want to visit Birmingham or Glasgow? Not really. Other than a weekend trip to Edinburgh, for most people London is the UK.

Everyone had gone to Bradford for the weekend.

So for someone from a far-flung corner of the UK, that’s a bit depressing. What chance does Dundee have of becoming some kind of gaming hub, when as soon as a company gets successful it will probably up-sticks to Edinburgh, like Rockstar – developers of Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto – did (yes – Grand Theft Auto was developed in Dundee!).

The UK Government acknowledges the London dominance by trying to force some taxpayer-funded organisations to move to provincial cities. Even the BBC is getting in on the act by moving its BBC breakfast programme to Manchester – a move which is proving rather unpopular with the staff.

I doubt London will ever lose its “Primate City” status in the UK. Nevertheless, I think government is obliged to keep trying to encourage companies to invest elsewhere in the country. Which is why you will get some pretty good incentives to start a company in places like Scotland. Here’s a story in which a founder of an Internet company got a £250k grant from Scottish Enterprise. I was also pleased when my MBA classmate, Xavier, told me that one of the reasons he set up the first Better World Books overseas subsidiaries in Scotland was because he was impressed with how helpful Scottish Enterprise was.

Maybe there is hope!

Dundee Supermarket Sweep

16 Sep
Asda pic by Dominic

Asda pic by Dominic

As a Dundonian away from home I like to keep a close eye on my home city’s economic news, mostly through the Courier’s website. I hate it when something bad happens there, such as when NCR closed down its manufacturing plant there, or more recently when computer game company Realtime Worlds went in to administration (although there is hope that some of it can be saved).

I’m always hoping to see good news, but I see something about once a year that really annoys me – “excitement” about a new supermarket being built in the city. Just today I’ve seen that Asda will be building a new supermarket on the old NCR site.

Alan Mitchell, chief executive of Dundee and Angus Chamber of Commerce  said the move would be a major economic boost. “The proposals will bring a significant amount of investment into the area, as well as creating up to 480 new jobs at a time when they are needed most.”

Woop-di-do! Another supermarket for Dundee!

I think this dependence on new supermarkets and treating it as if it is really good news for the city is really quite depressing. Are there thousands of families sitting around in Dundee thinking, “you know what Dundee really needs? Another supermarket! I just don’t have anywhere to shop in this fine city I wish there was another supermarket so I could shop there.” Are there folk in Edinburgh and Aberdeen looking at the news thinking, “Smashing! There’s a new Asda being built in Dundee – let’s travel there to do our weekly shopping in future!” No they are not.

Fact is there is a finite amount of supermarket shopping that can be done in an area. All that will happen once this supermarket is built is that people who used to shop in one of the other supermarkets in Dundee, will now shop at the new Asda. These other supermarkets will have slightly fewer customers and one of them will close down eventually. We don’t suddenly have a need to do more shopping just because there is a new supermarket in the city!

More likely is that the supermarket continues to put the squeeze on small and independent retailers in the city.

And as for the job creation? Well I do think it’s nice to have the construction work while the supermarket is being built, but the fact is that the jobs that are being created at the supermarket are mostly low value positions. They are still welcome and essential for a diverse economy, but I don’t believe we’ll end up with 480 net jobs created and they are in no way comparable with 480 skilled jobs being lost at a manufacturing plant.

I wish the city would show a bit more ambition. It’s become too predictable that as soon as some major employer shuts down, Dundee City Council is imagining a new supermarket for the site. Could they not have shown a bit more ambition to get a major employer in there? You know – one of the ones that actually exports something so isn’t dependent on recycling the same pot of consumer retail money the is swirling round the place. I know it’s not easy – no-one is going to move there just because there is a vacant plot – but by putting an identi-kit supermarket on the site we’re losing a potential site for something that could have had net benefit to the city.

It is disingenuous* to suggest that a new supermarket is a “major economic boost”.

Until I see a proper company bringing 480 jobs to Dundee I just can’t get excited. Until then the supermarkets can sweep off.

*yeah I’m not really sure disingenuous is the right word. Sounds quite good though!