Why I chose Perth. Iain Hutchison.
Iain Hutchison is the founder of Perth-based Merlin ERD Ltd, a world-leading company in the design and delivery of horizontal, extended reach and complex high angle wells for the oil industry.
Founded in 2007, Merlin ERD has brought in excess of £30 million and over 20 high-quality jobs to Perth since its launch, as well as being awarded the much-coveted Queen's Award in 2014 and 2016. The company’s achievements in that period range from representing the UK government interests at the South American Petroleum Conference in 2015 to making BP Azerbaijan $1 billion in a three year period.
Strategically located at Cherrybank in an impressive five acres of award-winning gardens, Merlin is now in the capable hands of its employees following a successful transition to employee ownership between 2017 and 2021.
Iain commented: “I’ve always known I would want to do different things but it was important to me that Merlin secured the business in Perth. When I started seriously looking at options for my succession, the Employee Ownership Trust made a lot of sense. It has allowed the team to benefit from company profits and ensured Merlin’s future success remains in Perth.”
Merlin is at 90% employee ownership now and Iain has stepped back from day to day operations to a role on the board, unlocking time to pursue business opportunities he overlooked whilst building Merlin.
“We’ve invested over £3 million in Perth property over the past few years so I can say with certainty that my base will always be here. I’m also mid-way through my Flying Instructor qualification at Perth (Scone) airport, as well as testing several renewable energy and carbon capture ventures. Perth truly can be a city of opportunities”
Originally hailing from Auchenblae in North East Scotland, Iain graduated from Heriot-Watt University in 1991 with an honours degree in Mechanical Engineering. After working with oil companies in Aberdeen, London and the Ukraine, the oil and gas downturn in 1998 offered the opportunity to travel and he set off back-packing around South America, ending up in Australia 18 months later.
This was to be a seminal point in his career; working as Woodside Energy’s Lead drilling engineer, he was part of the team that drilled the world’s longest offshore well, which was almost 10km long. From here Extended Reach Drilling (ERD) was in his blood and he assisted companies drill wells they often viewed as impossible, including a 7km well for Apache Corporation in 2006, which produced $150 million of oil that would otherwise have been overlooked.
With an impressive track record and a growing network of global industry contacts, it was only a matter of time before Iain made the decision to set up his own company - and return home to Scotland.
I know without doubt that building Merlin anywhere else would have been harder, if possible at all.
Iain Hutchison at Merlin ERD's head office in Cherrybank.
“Our two boys were born in Perth, Western Australia, but when my wife, Debbie, was heavily pregnant with our daughter we decided it was time to come home. We loved Australia, but Scotland’s rugged landscapes and rain are woven into our core and will always be home.”
“After a total of seven years in Oz, we were sad to leave, but happy to arrive home to family, friends and familiarity. One of the first things we did was buy and renovate part of a 16th century castle, then take the kids for the weekend to Italy, you just can’t do that in Australia!
“Likewise, it would have been very difficult to build such an internationally expansive business like Merlin in Australia, the remoteness is a huge barrier.”
“I was offered the opportunity to head up a Scottish office for an American company I was working with, where I had already doubled the profitable turnover of their Australian operations, so knew the chance of success was good, but the truth is, I would not have had control and prosperity from my activities in Scotland would have been directed to the US parent company.
“And apart from any of that, I didn’t want to die wondering if I could grow a proper business!”
So why Perth? Iain had grown up in Aberdeenshire, studied in Edinburgh and worked in London, all more obvious choices for a fledgling technical consulting business.
“For me, London isn’t where I wanted to raise my family and Aberdeen is too distant from the best bits of Scotland, so my wife and I started looking at various other towns and cities; anywhere that was a reasonable size and had decent connectivity to urban centres, and good accessibility to Aberdeen was considered.
“Having grown up near there, Montrose was another option, but it also remote and I knew I’d have difficulty attracting key staff. And while Edinburgh is a great city, it’s expense and congestion was unattractive – plus it was too far from Aberdeen.
“Stirling probably proved to be the strongest competition for Perth but it was just that bit further from the Aberdeen, the highlands, skiing and at the time was more expensive.
“Perth offered it all. It has an immense quality of life and is a great place to live and raise kids. There is very little congestion compared with larger conurbations, yet it has incredibly easy access to the rest of Scotland.
“As a family, we love the great outdoors and Perth is close to both ski slopes and sailing on the west coast. My wife and I also enjoy theatre, eating out and socialising and Perth offers all of that in abundance.
“From a business point of view, the connectivity is second to none. You are at either of Scotland’s hub airports within one hour, meaning international travel is simple, and Perth also has great infrastructure in terms of road and rail and I can be in any of the main business hubs within 90 mins.
We needed to be based in a city or town where people wanted to live.
“Significantly more important than all of this though, was the need to be based in a city or town where people wanted to live. People are everything in a business and I knew it was likely we’d have to recruit from abroad to secure the specialist skills Merlin required, and the truth is, people who know Perth generally have a positive view of it and so are open to relocating.
“It’s also true that even though Perth offers all of these great benefits, it is significantly more affordable – both to live and do business – than its larger counterparts. Perth has great human capital and a low-cost base.”
“Almost straight away I knew we’d made the right decision. PKC and Perthshire Chamber of Commerce have been very supportive and encouraging, and more importantly, fellow business owners have embraced us as one of their own.
“Fourteen years later, I know without doubt that building Merlin anywhere else would have been harder, if possible at all. We’ve attracted some of the industry’s best engineering minds to relocate to Perth from Australia, Asia, Russia and Europe and I have left a legacy to the team who helped me achieve that. Why would I have gone anywhere else?”
Iain’s succession continues in 2021, with the employees taking on responsibility for the company’s success and he has already embarked upon an ambitious forestry project, having purchased land near Dunkeld, just a few miles outside of the city.
“We have an untapped potential to develop Perth as the centre of expertise in renewable energy. It offers superb accessibility to Scotland’s natural resources - both the Forestry Commission and Scottish and Southern Energy have a base in the area - and no other city has such great reach to all of our onshore-offshore wind energy generation centres.
“If we can join up business support organisations to leverage their strengths and avoid duplication we can make a real difference. I’d like to see a high-growth, technical business hub for growing fledgling businesses and tech entrepreneurs to match the fabulous Creative Exchange.
"It is an exciting time to be in this business and Perth is just the place to grow it from.”
Iain is a member of the Perth City Leadership Forum and is the Chair of the Enterprise and Prosperity Working Group. He is also working with Alex Cairncross and Stephen Leckie to help Perth based businesses aiming to secure a Queens Award.