THE ANDREW DAVIDSON INTERVIEW: Digby Jones

THE ANDREW DAVIDSON INTERVIEW: Digby Jones - In stark contrast to his dry, metropolitan predecessors at the CBI, the present director general is a bluff, down-to-earth operator from the Midlands who has made it his business to get out and meet the members

by ANDREW DAVIDSON
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In stark contrast to his dry, metropolitan predecessors at the CBI, the present director general is a bluff, down-to-earth operator from the Midlands who has made it his business to get out and meet the members. Grassroots man, yes, but with real ambitions.

The way he tells it, Digby Jones came to run the CBI by chance.

He was standing in Copenhagen airport, as you do if you're changing planes from Helsinki to London, when his mobile rang. Jones, a big, bluff Brummie from Bromsgrove, answered it curiously.

'Ullo?'

'You don't know me, but I am a headhunter,' said a mellifluous voice.

'Can I talk to you about the new director general of the CBI?'

'Sure,' said Jones. 'Who's that, then?'

Silence. 'Well, we rather thought you could put your name forward,' said the voice.

At that point, says Jones, recounting this to me from the DG's glass-panelled office at the CBI's base in central London, he was simply astonished.

'I think I said to him: 'Doesn't that normally go to, yunno, grey-suited London people?' Then he said: 'Well, we really want to make a change. Can we fax you a job spec?''

And he did, and Jones' wife Pat read it, and when she picked him up at the airport she said, it's you, you know. And Jones' response? 'But have you seen the money?'

He giggles. At the time he was, he says, pretty happy working in a new corporate finance division set up by KPMG, earning, apparently, shedloads more than the CBI was offering.

'But I put my name forward, joined the shortlist, and the rest, as they say, is history.' Jones gives me a big grin from his amiable, chubby face before spelling out anything I might have missed. 'Now I am on a lot less money, but am very fulfilled.'

Of course. Jones, a broad, bulky bear of a man - he used to play No. 8 for Bromsgrove Town rugby club - is very good at telling stories. Two years in the post as DG of the CBI, he has surprised many who greeted his arrival with Digby who? A lawyer from the Midlands? Well, get this: he meets and greets, he gets out and about, he presses the flesh and he listens, as you might expect from someone who knows how to build up a business in a tight community.

He is, without doubt, the warmest, most member-friendly boss the CBI has had in years. In fact, he is so different from the previous three incumbents - Adair Turner, Sir Howard Davies and Sir John Banham, all rather dry, ex-McKinsey consultants with excellent Whitehall connections - that you are constantly looking behind him to see if a grey-suited London type is about to pop out again. It is something that Jones, with his stories and his self-deprecating humour, is smart enough to be making the most of.

Because he is not as disingenuous as he makes out. He may have spent much of his career running a law firm in Birmingham, but he was already pretty active in the CBI (chairman of the West Midlands region, no less) before he was approached to head it. And as such, he appears more alert than his predecessors to what is likely to appeal to ordinary members: those small businesses that make up 60% of the organisation. The moment you meet him, the minute I started writing this, you want to call him by his first name. Vote Digby! He's a walking Rotary Club speech. In short, he is a bit of a politician.

Yet, conversely, he is probably not as familiar with the corridors of power as his predecessors, nor as likely to impress the media with any in-depth explication of public policy issues or a list of clever friends.

Does that matter? So far, probably not. What's undeniable is that someone, somewhere - step forward Rentokil's Sir Clive Thompson, then president of the CBI and heading the DG selection process - wanted a change. So Jones got the job as the CBI's back-to-grassroots man, brought in to appease the grumblers who argued that the organisation was being hijacked by the multinationals on the issue of Europe. And the decision to put him in charge of the ship is either brilliant, brave or bloody-minded, depending on where you are coming from.

And what does Digby think? Like the chorus-line hoofer who finally gets the chance to grab the spotlight, he's loving every minute of it. Now is the time, he says, adopting a quasi-Churchillian tone, when business can really make a difference. 'So many influences are coming together.' He's been getting round the country, listening to views, trying to understand what the firms in the CBI want. His priorities? Members, members, members ...

'I had a fair idea of what the organisation was about when I came in,' he says, returning to his normal bullish rush of words, 'and I felt it had lost touch with its membership a bit. I was very fortunate to have inherited a legacy that put policy work on an amazingly high plane and built conduits into government that were first class. My job was to take that and connect it much more effectively and understandingly to the membership.'

Understandingly? I think we can call that a Digbyism. Occasionally as we talk he mangles a word or a sense in the rolling scrum of his enthusiasm, but you never lose the thread. It is, of course, that same lack of polish that makes many rather warm to performers like John Prescott - he can't be making it up, it's so real. But as with Prescott, there is a lot more going on beneath Jones' verve than the bluff exterior suggests. He can move from earnest explication to jovial bonhomie in a wink, and is, say friends, the most likable of ego-monsters: very driven, very ambitious, a terrific dealmaker and business promoter who loves being listened to, but whose boyish ebullience can annoy as many as it endears. He even admits it himself. When I ask why he hasn't got kids - he's been married twice - he laughs and says he couldn't stand the competition.

His saving grace is a lack of pomposity that works its way out in a populist streak. That, I would guess, must explain his decision to pin a piece of paper on the wall by his desk with PROJECT SLIMDIGBY written across it. 'I'm six foot and 17 stone,' he moans. 'That's two stone I've put on in two years.' So he's made a game of it: every fortnight CBI staff get the chance to pay pounds 1 and guess Digby's latest weight fluctuation: the winner shares the pot with Sense, the deaf-blind and rubella charity.

That's Digby in a nutshell, says one friend: he's the centre of attention making good money for a good cause, just as in 1998, when he cycled from John O'Groats to Land's End to raise more than pounds 200,000 for Birmingham's St Mary's Hospice. He's a big personality, and it's hard to overestimate how great a change of style this is for the CBI. Somehow, you can't imagine a SLIMADAIR or a SLIMHOWARD campaign in quite the same vein ...

But then flesh-pressing - in all its senses, apparently - is part of Jones' meet-the-members strategy. 'I think to be a 21st-century director general of a membership organisation you have to spend quality time with the members in their location,' he says earnestly. 'You have to sit round a table and say, how is it for you? When you've learnt that, you take it back and it informs your policy.

'Then the big thing is to return and communicate the result to the membership so they don't feel they are speaking into a black hole. They actually get a response. People would rather have bad news than no news. Of course, they'd rather have good news than both. But if there is something I can contribute I really feel it is networking and communication and negotiation, and of course, profile and marketing the brand and ...'

Jones, you suspect, was probably pretty irrepressible as a kid, too. Born in Longbridge, outside Birmingham, the second child of a village storekeeper, he was a bright scholarship boy sent from primary to public school and driven on by ambitious parents. His dad was from Yorkshire, his mum from Leicestershire, both from families drawn to Birmingham by work opportunities. Everything was about what you could achieve through your own efforts. Nearly all the customers in the family's village store, in Alvechurch, worked at Austin Motors' plant nearby, but for the Jones' only son, something more was expected.

Jones says he got his thirst for learning from his dad, and his energy and drive from his mum. He admits his big sister still ribs him that he was spoilt rotten. But it was not all easy. Getting sent to Bromsgrove public school was a shock for a boy whose parents had little money. 'I was proud of what Mum and Dad did, but kids are cruel, and again and again I was made conscious of it.'

The public school experience, he says, was for him about constantly having to prove your worth, to be the best, all the time. That's now deeply ingrained.

Friends say that if Jones has a prejudice, it is still against those who he feels were born 'with a bit too much silver spoon' in the mouth.

It was all rubbed in again when he was rejected by Oxford. 'Passed the exams but failed the interview,' says Jones tersely. 'I don't know what I said, but I realised my approach to life and theirs was not going to be harmonious ... I am quite proud of where I come from.'

A lot of his empathy with the CBI's small-business membership - non-metropolitan, un-Oxbridgey, held at arm's length from the glamorous multinationals - can draw deep on this experience from those early days.

In the end, he read law at University College, London, instead. Why law?

He'd always wanted to be lawyer, simply because he loved arguing as a child. 'I'd always believed in fighting someone's cause. Family lunches were enormous arguments about issues of the day; I just enjoyed the debate.'

And after university he went back to Birmingham, joining a 'smallish' law firm called Edge & Ellison, which then underwent an extraordinary growth spurt. From 14 partners and 80 employees in 1978 when he joined, to 45 partners and 300 employees by 1990, and 85 partners and 800 staff in 1998. Right time, right place ...

'It just grew as Birmingham grew,' explains Jones. More businesses came in, financial services followed, work for lawyers multiplied. Jones had started in property but transferred into corporate law. He began to build a team and a bit of a reputation. By 1987 he was head of the corporate department, by 1990 deputy senior partner. Around the same time, law firms were allowed to market themselves for the first time. By 1995 Jones was spending more time running the business and boosting the brand - always in the trade press, always sounding off - than doing law.

In fact, to others he was the firm, with a growing reputation for getting things done. 'Digby was Mr Edge Ellison, the great deal-doer,' says Terry Gately, his former KMPG colleague, now chairman of Apollo Metals. Most of all, adds Gately, Jones became highly skilled at negotiating and communicating with clients, using his bluff personality to push through compromises. 'Most lawyers will just prevaricate if there's an impasse and collect the fees, but Digby'd always get people together and resolve it. He'd say: 'Are you happy paying me lots of money while you fight, or shall we sort it out?''

It is this jovial plausibility that the CBI is now tapping into. But there is a flip side, and that's Jones' steely ambition. No-one ever thought he would leave Edge - he had sacrificed everything, including his first marriage, in building it up - but when other partners blocked his plans to merge the firm with a rival, he was off. As he puts it, the firm needed to expand to get to the next level. 'It had grown from a small business to a big business and needed a culture change. Some of the partners wanted to do it and some didn't. I got frustrated and just wanted to move on.'

So he allowed himself to be poached by Gately for the new corporate finance team at global accountants KPMG. Then a year and a bit later, he was gone from that too, into the CBI. Too good an opportunity to miss? For the CBI's selection team, Jones was just the new style of leader it was looking for.

'Digby's great strength is that he sees himself as a businessman and his role as representing the views of business, rather than using that role as a platform to follow his own interests,' says Sir Clive Thompson.

'He is also a better communicator than many of his predecessors.'

Is that a dig at other DGs? Not at all, says Thompson, they all had their strengths, although, he adds with a chuckle, the CBI's grass-roots membership 'tends not to like' consultants.

Is there another agenda here? The hint that the McKinsey men - chosen because the firm has such a good track record working in public policy - were getting too close to the New Labour power network? And Jones, by instinct a gut Tory, is here to set things back on course? Some might guess yes, but Jones is too smart to let on about his real views. What he will say is that the CBI believes that the Government should back off and give business the right environment - looser labour laws, lighter tax regime - in which to prosper, then it can make a difference socially.

Isn't that trickle-down Reaganomics? 'Well, that's just the half of it,' says Jones, clearly relishing an argument. 'Business can only expect the right environment if it in turn acts as an agent of social inclusion.

It must trickle it down - I wasn't going to use that term, but now you have ... Businesses must be good neighbours environmentally, they have to be good employers, they have to care about the people whose lives they affect, they have to be good suppliers and customers, they have to be good in their communities. Not only is that morally very important, but it makes practical business sense too, as everyone likes the feelgood factor.'

By now Jones sounds like he is on the stump, banging out the points about social inclusion and wealth-creation, mangling his metaphors - 'Neither side deserves to have its views put to the top of the pile unless it steps up to the plate' - but never losing the thread. He is a terrific off-the-cuff speaker, sweeping you along with enthusiatic gusto. What's difficult to glean, however, is what he really thinks. And that's not just me; politicians have the same problem too. Jones confessed to a friend that Tony Blair had said to him: 'We're still trying to get to know you, Digby ...' Yet much of what Jones espouses could have been lifted from a Blair speech: the right environment for enterprise, the role of business in fostering social inclusion. Is the CBI closer than ever to government, or trying to pull itself away?

Maybe Jones' plans for expansion at the organisation are more telling.

A new CBI office is being opened in Washington, and one in Brussels. Why?

Aren't the endless embassy trade officials and government lobbyists based there enough?

No, he says, British trade officials are 'damn good' but they are 'responsible to political paymasters' and British business needs its own lobby. Less of a New Labour lean perhaps? 'We add a dimension of pure business need. We go there because our members want us to be there.' He cites the recent US decision on steel tariffs and the fact that about two-thirds of the legislation now affecting British business comes out of Brussels.

So he's not empire-building? I remember one of Jones' friends saying that his mantra at Edge was that you should never be parochial, you should be prepared to play on a world stage. Is he now imposing his natural urge to grow a business onto the CBI?

'No, no, no, no, no,' says Jones, clearly perturbed that I'd got that impression. 'I haven't got the money or the resource or the inclination to empire-build.'

But, he adds, as business is globalising, so must the CBI. Yet wasn't he brought in to re-engage with those members whose horizons are primarily domestic? It was precisely because their instincts on Europe - anti - clashed so obviously with those of the larger multinationals that the CBI got its message in a tangle pre-Jones. Where is all this leading?

No-one is sure. Jones has certainly worked hard to stop the CBI being a single-issue body, if only because there is so much else he wants to focus on: transport, tax, education, social inclusion. He talks passionately about how frustrating it can be to be overwhelmed by the press's interest in one thing.

'I go to prisons every quarter and I talk about small businesses getting hold of people in prisons and skilling them so that when they come out they can get a job and thus are less likely to reoffend. Business has a role in that, and in getting better services, and in managing the good, decent, honest people who work in our public services. These are some of the issues the CBI is on, but everything we try to do, whomp!, Europe. So I have tried to broaden it - I hope with some success.'

But surely Europe won't go away? Well, he says, as far as his members are concerned, their views on Europe just reflect the rest of the country's: split. And he wants to leave it at that. 'One thing I am very keen on at the CBI is that we don't get involved in the political debate about Europe.'

Really? Doesn't business have a view?

'It's not a debate I want to join. CBI members pay me to reflect their views. They don't pay me to give their slant on it.'

Hmm. It sounds like Jones is involved in some painful fence-sitting, but perhaps that's what it takes to hold the organisation together, and maybe he is the man to do it. As another put it to me: 'Digby is a performer. Clive didn't want another backroom intellectual.' Jones can talk the CBI through whatever is thrown at it.

For he can, it seems, make anything into a diverting anecdote. He met his second wife Pat when she was a client of his at Edge & Ellison. He did her conveyancing. 'I remember going to the senior partner and saying: 'I want to take a client out to dinner. Ethically, am I allowed to?' The partner replied: 'Has she paid her bill?''

He laughs loudly at the telling, and you can't help but join in. Pat, 15 years his senior, runs their flat in London's Marylebone and their cottage in Worcestershire and has provided the rock to his ambitions for more than a decade now, putting up with his endless travelling and his 14-hour days, his obsessions with rugby and military history. No wonder he said he couldn't take any competition.

And after his five-year stint at the CBI? Ooh, he says, he won't go back to full-time lawyering or corporate finance, he doesn't miss the money, it has to be something with a greater purpose. 'The biggest driver in me doing this kind of job is that I want to make a difference. I had the opportunity by fortune of that mobile ringing that day in Copenhagen airport to make a difference, and I want to carry on doing so.'

Anyway, time's nearly up, photographs to take, appointments waiting.

Jones glances at his watch and looks disappointed. Then he goes: Nah, push back the next meeting, let's keep talking ...

< JONES IN A MINUTE 1955 Born 28 October in Longbridge, Birmingham. EDUCATED Bromsgrove School and University College, London 1978 Became an articled clerk at solicitors Edge & Ellison, Birmingham 1984 Made partner, Edge & Ellison 1990 Appointed deputy senior partner, Edge & Ellison 1995 Made senior partner, Edge & Ellison 1998 Appointed vice-chairman of corporate finance at KPMG 2000 Appointed director general of the Confederation of British Industry

Digby Jones is a director of iSoft plc and Business in the Community.

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