Belfast Telegraph

Business sick of Sturgeon pushing for independence - Highland Spring boss

Business leaders are "fed up" with Nicola Sturgeon's quest for independence and want her to get back to her day job, according to the boss of one of Scotland's best-known brands.

Les Montgomery, chief executive of bottled water firm Highland Spring, told the Press Association the Scottish Government should be helping the Conservatives to achieve the best possible Brexit outcome.

He said: "Businesses are fed up. The Scottish Government should be getting on with the job they are there to do. Focusing on employment, investment, those kinds of things."

"Independence isn't the job that the Scottish Government is supposed to be doing."

His comments come as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed plans for a second referendum on Scottish independence are being put on hold - but left the door open for another ballot before 2021.

Ms Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament she was going to "reset" the timetable she had previously set out, which could have seen a referendum take place between autumn 2018 and spring 2019.

But she made clear that she wanted to give Scottish voters - who backed Remain in last year's EU referendum - an alternative to Brexit when there is "clarity" at the end of the process.

Mr Montgomery said it looks like independence is "off the table" for now, and that was a good thing as it is "just a distraction".

"I have 600 people that I am responsible for, and I am trying to do the best for them. I would think the Scottish Government should also try to do the best for the people as a whole."

Bottling over 500 million litres a year, Highland Spring is showing continued strong sales performance, with revenues of £103 million and pre-tax profits of £4.3 million in the year end to December 31 2015.

Founded in 1979, the company is benefiting from a shifting consumer outlook, with more consumers switching from sugary soft drinks to healthier alternatives.

Highland Spring is ultimately owned by one of Scotland's wealthiest men, Mahdi Al Tajir, who is worth over £1.6 billion.

On Brexit, Mr Montgomery said the Scottish Government should be "helping the country exit as effectively as possible", rather than trying to create more division.

"What we and the wider industry needs is for the UK and devolved governments to continue working together, swiftly and decisively, to bring clarity to key questions for businesses as the Brexit process continues," he said.

The UK's divorce from the EU will not have a meaningful impact on Highland Spring, he said, given only 3% of its products are sold abroad.

However, the company stands to gain from a rising trend among UK consumers to "buy British" as Brexit looms.

The flagship Highland Spring brand is the number one UK-produced plain bottled water brand and also the top sparkling brand in the UK.

The group's portfolio also includes brands such as Speyside Glenlivet and Hydr8.

"British people tend to be very loyal," he said. "Brexit will help with that. It will be positive for British products and British brands."

If Scotland were to vote for independence, that could be more of a risk, however.

"We are a British company, we're based in Scotland but we're a British company.

"We send 85% of our products to England, and we are fortunate to consider 'local' to mean 'British'.

"That's how it should be. We hope to see that continue."

Scottish Labour's economy spokesperson Jackie Baillie said: "Businesses across Scotland are tired of the SNP government's obsession with independence and the damage the uncertainty of another referendum is doing to our economy."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Brexit is far and away the biggest threat to Scottish jobs, investment and living standards, and an extreme Brexit, taking us outside the world's biggest single market, would be enormously damaging to businesses.

"That is why we are fully committed to fighting to retaining our place in the single market and working hard to mitigate the damage from EU withdrawal. That job will be easier with a place for Scotland and the other devolved governments at the negotiating table, something there is growing support for, including from business leaders.

"At the same time, Scotland voted overwhelmingly against leaving Europe, and we have made clear that the country should still have a choice on its future at the end of the Brexit process, once the terms of the deal are known."

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