Scotland business

Scottish independence: Miller Group boss joins debate

construction workers
Image caption The Miller group has concluded a re-financing deal which has handed majority control to a US equity firm.

The chief executive of the Miller Group has added to business pressure for an early conclusion to uncertainty over Scottish independence plans.

Keith Miller was speaking after concluding a £160m re-finance of the Edinburgh-based construction and property group.

Mr Miller's comments, made to BBC Scotland, follow concerns raised last week by SSE, the power utility.

They were backed by Keith Cochrane, chief executive of Weir Group.

Mr Miller said: "The Scottish government's done a relatively good job in creating opportunities for building and larger infrastructure projects, but we'd like to see the issue of the independence vote settled sooner rather than later".

He said the property and construction sector would be less affected than some in manufacturing, but added: "From a general business point of view, we'd like to have a clearer idea of what's going to happen and when it's going to happen".

Finance Secretary John Swinney later responded to the comments: "We are absolutely committed to having a fully-informed debate on Scotland's future - which is exactly why in the coming months we will continue to set out what independence means for people and business in Scotland, and in autumn 2013 we will publish the full prospectus for independence in plenty time for the referendum".

He also pointed to comments from the director general of the Institute of Directors saying he is "relaxed" about Scotland becoming independence, while the chief executive of Oil and Gas UK said the industry would not be getting involved in what is a democratic decision.

Recently the Miller family's majority control of the group was handed to GSO, a subsidiary of Blackstone, the world's largest real estate investor.

Mr Miller commented on the debt problems that required Miller Group to bring in external investors to restructure the company finances.

'Less competition'

He said the divisions of the firm, in construction, commercial property and mining, were trading well, and the secure funding now lets the company invest in new opportunities. Its assets are now valued at £220m.

Mr Miller said the company's appetite for new business "will not change massively" under GSO control.

But he said: "The big change is that we've got a lot less competition in the marketplace for sites.

"Because of the limited access to bank funding, the ability of smaller companies to do bank-funded, highly-leveraged deals has been reduced dramatically. We're at the big table of companies able to develop large sites".

The chief executive also pointed to signs of improvement in the residential market, though Miller remains apart from the large house building corporates that need to drive volume sales.

Miller has strategic sites for traditional family housing, which is its target market.

However, he played down the prospect of acquisitions under GSO control in the short term, but that it could be an issue for the medium term: "We've always said we want to be at the dinner table rather than on the menu".

Distressed assets

Mr Miller said he also expected banks to start offloading or developing distressed assets they've picked up as other property companies have collapsed. Miller Group has already been working on three such projects with banks.

And nearly 80 years after the Miller family created the company, Keith Miller commented on the restructure: "Miller family control has been something that's been a bit amorphous.

"The three brothers founded the business in the 30s, and since then, it's gone down two generations. I'm the only Miller family member on the board, and although there's a lessening of the family involvement, that didn't happen yesterday".

He said the change was "a natural evolution for any business to go through", and that family members had been part of the investment consortium resolving the firm's debt problems, also including Royal Bank of Scotland.

"The Miller family culture goes on in the business through its employees," he added. "We've got a strong set of values that continues."

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