Ellie Clayton 8 Feb 2017 10:00am

A day in the life: Kenneth Osborne

Kenneth Osborne tells Ellie Clayton about how he’s fulfilling his destiny as finance director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Caption: Photography: Martin Hunter


My original training was as a cellist. My brother is a successful concert pianist. I grew up hearing this amazing music and followed in his footsteps.

I went to music school and college and my first paid job was as a steward at Usher Hall, a concert hall in Edinburgh. I took that job to hear the RSNO for free every Friday night and now I’m its FD, so there’s a nice arc to the story.

I didn’t pursue the cello for a few reasons, partly because I got tendonitis in my arm in the last year of college and partly because I was questioning whether it was what I really wanted to do.

After I’d finished my degree I did a number of jobs. I worked as a care assistant and as an assistant warden in a probation and bail hostel. I’m not sure I was suited to either role and decided to train as an accountant.

I didn’t understand half of what was on the news every night because it was about business and finance and economics. I wanted to understand it and I thought accountancy would help me do that. Once I made that decision I realised that my dad’s dad and my mum’s dad were both accountants – it’s in the genes.


I’m a finance director [and previously acting CEO] of a small organisation, which means my responsibility is for finance and everything no one else wants to do. In some ways my job is typical, I do finance and IT and I look after the HR, but the fact we’re an orchestra has its quirks. There aren’t many of us around, and because I’ve got such a strong background in music my role as an FD is broader that it might otherwise be.

Probably to the frustration of our artistic planners I get involved in the creative side of things in a much more substantive way than if I was just bringing my financial expertise. That could be the discussion of the programme or artists or audiences.


I don’t have a typical day, my role is too broad. The only thing I do every day is open my notebook, review what needs to be done, and then proceed with the day on the basis of what’s on that list.
Over the past few weeks I’ve had a meeting with the Scottish government about the possibility of including some of our recordings in its new baby box initiative; been to a Creative Carbon Scotland event; put together a salary sacrifice scheme; and helped the administrator on our team through her AAT training. There are so many different things I’m responsible for developing and maintaining, that each day really is totally different.


I often spend my Saturday nights at concerts, whether it’s just to watch and listen, or whether I’ve got specific duties. Outside of work I still play a bit of cello, and I love tennis. I enjoy watching my two sons play rugby and hockey.


Funding is a big issue for us. It can be hard for the performing arts to compete when there’s underfunding in the NHS and in social care, for example. At the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) we have made a point of not making a huge deal out of any reduction in funding, we have a very good relationship with the Scottish government and are grateful to our other major donors.

But income from the Scottish government is about 60% of our annual turnover, and that has been declining over the past five years. We have a turnover of about £7m. The biggest operating surplus we have had in the nine years I’ve been here is about £180,000, but generally it’s less than £100,000 and quite often it’s as little as £5,000. If suddenly you take a six figure sum out of our funding, it becomes really difficult to know where to turn. You just have to be clever; in the programming, in managing costs, and on the balance of activities between programmes we promote ourselves, which we tend to lose money on, and concerts where someone else is hiring us.

I also played a key role in the development of our new home. That was in partnership with Glasgow City Council and an organisation called Glasgow Life. The contract wasn’t with us, but we’re the main user so I was the person who led everything from the RSNO side. I brokered the agreements and made sure the design brief was working. It wasn’t always enjoyable, but the end result has been hugely satisfying.


Finance here is the facilitator for us doing the work for the people of Scotland. We can do a big Mahler concert, for example, which could lose many thousands of pounds. If you were looking purely at the finances it would be completely ridiculous – but it’s not ridiculous artistically.

We did two concerts of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, the halls were full and the audience absolutely loved it. It was a fantastic experience for those that were there and that is what the government funds us to do. So my role is to understand how important it is to invest in large-scale expensive concerts, but to make sure we don’t do too many in one year, for instance.


There’s an enormous amount from my training that applies to my current job. My technical background is a huge help. I have a team that deals with most of the financial information but we are a small team, so I’m still very involved in a lot of the technical accounting.

I trained with Charles Frieze & Co, a firm of accountants in Manchester, and a lot of the audits I did were with charities. I came into industry with a very strong background in the charity sector. I did ICAEW’s diploma in charity accounting. I absolutely would not be where I am today without my ACA.


It’s really important to maintain a degree of intellectual independence. It’s all very well me understanding that it’s a great thing to do Mahler’s Eighth, but you’ve got to take a financially independent view of what’s going on and come to a rational decision. Being an accountant plays a massive role in that.