Scottish business will "just get on with it" whatever its people decide on independence, according to Ayrshire-born tycoon Sir Tom Hunter who is backing a fund to support entrepreneurial start-ups.
Hunter is contributing £700,000 to a £3.2m fund also backed by the Royal Bank of Scotland to help an initiative set up by the Scottish government in 2012 continue until the end of 2017. It will offer grants and loans to businesses selected via a Dragons Den-style pitching process.
"There is a funding gap for these early stage businesses. The banks are not filling it and we can't expect them to do it as this is the riskiest part of finance," said Hunter.
He believes the help is necessary because "Scotland lags behind in terms of starting and growing businesses and that is an important part of economic progress."
But asked if things might be better under an independent Scotland Hunter said: "I think that's a hard question to answer. It's a step into the unknown. Whatever the people decide we'll just get on with it. That's democracy."
Hunter has refused to reveal how he will vote in the referendum on whether Scotland should break away from the rest of the UK on 18 September. Instead he has funded a website and ebook which collate information from experts on the pros and cons of independence.
"I'm not going to come down on one side, I am playing this straight. I'm not involved in any of the campaigns. For the past 25 years I have been banging the drum for helping Scottish businesses: this (fund) is part of that. If any side tried to make politicial gain out of it I would be very annoyed," he said.
The new cash from Hunter and RBS will help develop the Scottish Edge fund which has so far support 69 start-up businesses. The Scottish government has already committed £2.35m to the project. But Hunter said that successful applicants would get more than just cash – they will also get advice and mentoring from experienced business people including him.
Hunter has certainly seen both the highs and lows of entrepreneurial enterprise having made his name as Scotland's first billionaire after building up and selling on the retail chain Sports Division for a quarter of a million pounds before building a portfolio of property investments and stakes in a string of retailers including Wyevale Garden Centre and fashion chain USC and footwear store Office. But he lost an estimated quarter of his fortune during the financial crisis as several of those businesses got into financial difficulties.
"I made big mistakes and I take full responsibility. I was never on my knees but my pride took a hit and I'm now a bit poorer and a lot wiser," he says. "Anybody who says the entrepreneurial journey is a straight curve upwards only is wrong. It's a roller coaster and if I couldn't deal with it myself then I wouldn't be much of a man."
Having made his name and much of his fortune from retail, the entrepreneur now doesn't own any store chains, having sold his stake in the House of Fraser department store to Newcastle United and Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley in a controversial move in April this year. Ashley still owns the 11% stake as the sale of the business to Chinese conglomerate Sanpower is yet to be finalised. The deal is thought to be awaiting Chinese regulatory approval.
"It was very straightforward. I checked if I could sell my shares, I could sell them and I got paid. The rest of the shareholders haven't got paid yet. There was a lot of talk about a legal wrangle but nothing ever came of it," said Hunter.
His main investments now are in retail software company OrderDynamics as well as property investments including a portfolio floated on London's junior Aim market in June this year.
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