Let's get a good woman to head the CBI

EDITOR'S BLOG: The departure of lifer John Cridland is a good opportunity to shake up the 'voice of UK business'.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 29 Jun 2015

So farewell, then, John Cridland. The director general of the CBI has announced that he’s off to a new gig at the end of the year. Cridland, 54 and a CBI lifer, has done five years in the top job and will end a 33-year career at the lobby group that he joined straight from university.  He was the first internal appointment as D-G in the CBI’s 50-year history.

Cridland was regarded as a relatively low profile, safe pair of hands.  He was no tub-thumper. The FT had a bit of fun today with his departure comparing Cridland unfavourably with James T Kirk from Star Trek. (There is, incidentally, not a single comment posted under the FT story. An unfortunate lack of interest in what should be a hot topic.)

John Cridland, it’s briefed, has done a good job talking with the Treasury behind closed doors and, certainly an ability to bend the chancellor’s ear in the right direction is a vital part of the job. But what UK business does not need next is a creature of the Whitehall corridors. It needs someone who can bang the drum for UK business among the substantial proportion of the population that has lost trust in the private sector.

Digby Jones was just about the most Marmite DG the CBI ever had and got up more noses than he ate rubber chicken at regional dinner events, but at least Lord Brum of Brum was noisy, engaging and visible. ‘The voice of UK business’ as the CBI likes to call itself needs someone who can do a bit of yelling when needs must.

It is high time a woman took up the role. But the CBI simply cannot go to within its own ranks again to find a new head. John Cridland’s deputy Katja Hall has been mooted as a replacement, but I spoke this afternoon to an-ex editor and City editor of two national newspapers and neither had any idea who she was.

I spoke to an ex-FTSE 100 CEO who dealt with the organisation a lot during the Cridland years. ‘The candidate should, I suspect, come from outside. It’s become too inward facing in my view in the last five years. Intellectual and ‘nice’. It needs to have more of a point of view. Upset a few members occasionally and tell business’s story forcefully and well.’

The problem is that the salary - £312,000, a sizeable chunk of change for us mere mortals - isn’t going to be enough to attract a big-hitting higher flier unless he or she already has a small pile in the bank. So what about Denise Kingsmill of this parish? She knows the ins and outs not just of the FTSE 100 but also the world of SMEs. (And, with a seat in the Lords, knows her way around government.) She’s done enough time on the BA board to have earned the right to keep that Gold Card for life.

If not what about Martha Lane Fox? Or Cilla Snowball who has chaired AMV BBDO, our biggest ad agency, for quite some time now. What about Alison Cooper of Imperial Tobacco, who knows her way around a tricky situation? And if they cannot find a great woman then Ian Cheshire, Jeff Randall or even Pesto.

The CBI has let itself come to be seen as the political lobbying arm of the UK’s very largest firms. No doubt that is an important part of its remit but it is not the whole story. The clue is in the name - the Confederation of British Industry should also encourage the nation’s economically vital but under-represented medium sized firms to be heard, as well as taking the public debate over the social value of business to a new generation. I’m sitting here with three of my colleagues all of whom are under the age of 29. The first three words they came up with to describe the CBI were ‘grey’ ‘boring’ and ‘suit.’  This isn’t good. The voice of business needs its tongue back.

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