The MT interview: Julia Cleverdon

As head these 15 years of Business In The Community, a lobbying body that cajoles big business into social engagement, she wields her incorrigible charm and relentless focus to tap the influence of the mighty - up to and including Prince Charles. Which scares some off ...

by Andrew Davidson
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Do we still need an organisation like Business In The Community? Julia Cleverdon, doyenne of the group and chief executive for 15 of its 25 years, doesn't even look shocked by the question. 'Of course we do,' she says, in her plummy, brisk style. 'There's lots to do, lots to do, we've got to raise the game, heighten the impact, actually get something done in Burnley ...'

Cleverdon, 57, is a woman of causes and Burnley, a town wrapped in poverty and with a growing British National Party presence, is her current obsession. That's how she operates: pick a target, find a strategy, obsess about it, then pull British bosses together behind the cause again and again. Business In The Community (BITC), a lobbying group set up by big business in to push companies towards better social responsibility, has channelled that drive since she took the top slot in 1992.

Now, when so many companies work so hard to show their commitment to corporate social responsibility, you might argue that BITC - £25m a year budget, 400 staff, paid for by subscription - should pack up and go home.

But that would be naive. Think, as Cleverdon does, Burnley. 'You go to a primary school in Burnley and only 12 families there have anyone in employment. We need to back people who are trying to do great things, there's a great new chief executive of Burnley Council ... That's what gets me going, getting new things started.'

Cleverdon is, in some people's estimation, one of the British business world's most influential forces. She is certainly a formidable networker, adviser to Prince Charles and buddy to the great and the good of corporate and political Britain. She's also, by dint of a second marriage to a much older man - the late John Garnett, former director of the Industrial Society - Virginia Bottomley's step-mother. All of which is slightly hard to get your head around, as Cleverdon is two years younger than Bottomley.

And as well as being smart and connected, she is, in the words of a former colleague, 'incorrigible and unruly'. That's an interesting mix. When I tell this colleague she's half an hour late for our meeting at BITC's canalside base in north London, he laughs. No surprises. But then out she rolls, round and jolly, all toothy smiles and handshakes - so buoyant that it's hard to feel peeved.

And like many people who habitually run late, Cleverdon doesn't apologise, just steamrollers you with enthusiasm, talking 19 to the dozen while walking round the desk in her tiny, windowless office. Even when time's up - notionally - it's hard to say goodbye as she is too busy shouting to her assistants about how late she is getting. They bear stoically amused expressions.

But who cares, if she gets the job done? Seventeen years at Business in the Community, and 14 years before that at the Industrial Society, she knows more than most about how big business in Britain interlocks. At BITC, which was created to help regenerate communities devastated by unemployment in the 1980s, she has become part-lobbyist, part-whipper-in, cajoling chairmen and chief executives to back her mix of campaigning and programme delivery. BITC targets education, unemployment and homelessness, and now sustainability and climate change.

And as its success rate has grown, moving beyond business support for enterprise agencies to promoting direct corporate involvement, the style at the top seems to have become increasingly personal. Cleverdon, daughter of a BBC radio producer, has become an adept user of social networks - in particular, contact with the Prince of Wales, which is wielded as carrot and stick in the process. By wheedling and entreaty and dragging them out on visits to problem places, she pushes individual bosses into involvement, sometimes without much subtlety.

She is, as one boss told me, relentless and intrusive. 'I think some do feel they have been mugged by Julia,' laughs John Kelly, chairman of Gala Coral and board member of BITC.

She gives short shrift to time-wasters. 'I can tell very fast who is out just for a lunch, a launch and a logo,' she says. And no-one is off-limits. Recently, she organised a quiet lunch for private-equity chiefs at Clarence House with Prince Charles, in his role as president of BITC. 'It was,' she teases, 'very, very interesting.'

You might ask why chairmen and chief executives put up with it. Some don't - BITC has more than 700 member companies, but others just don't want to know. And yes, says Cleverdon, she does take that personally. 'I have a list pinned above my bed,' she says about the non-joiners. 'That's why I read the death column in The Times every morning. Where there's death, there's hope. Ha-ha-ha!'

She laughs uproariously. You can see her colleagues slapping their foreheads at that one. Don't say you want non-joiners to die, Julia!

But it's absolutely in character and meant without malice. She gets away with it because, besides being intellectually sharp, she is quick to laugh, slightly batty - she looks extraordinary, short and buxom, with a schoolgirl haircut on a weathered face - and hides her cunning behind a posh, jolly-hockeysticks manner and occasional gin-soaked-Memsahib-style swearing.

That's hard to resist in what is still the very male world of the business elite. She even takes the mickey out of the Prince of Wales. She is very keen to show me the reams of hand-written notes, sometimes three a day, that Prince Charles showers her with, full of ideas and suggestions. 'Show Andrew the black-spider memo folder, Tor!' she shouts to her PA, Victoria.

BITC is one of Prince Charles' favourite ways of getting things done in Britain, and Cleverdon knows the power this gives her. A colleague says she is adept at focusing the Prince's energies on the issues that matter - and diverting him from the ones that don't. Cleverdon says simply that the Prince is a skilled campaigner, and works tirelessly for BITC's causes, always available to lure bosses out. They work together as a team.

'The most important thing he has done is provide the flypaper to get this stonking number of business leaders to come out on visits. He is enormously intellectually engaged in it ... But I've no doubt we get added value from him, not just because he is a wonderful magnet, but because his understanding of how you make things happen is extraordinary. He's seen many generations of business leaders. He understands the pressure on them.'

She starts reading me chunks of his letters. 'Dare we try and look at these vital issues through the prism of CSR now things are becoming so depressingly violent and cynical?' She picks up another and frowns. 'This is about the 2006 meat hygiene regulations ...' You wonder what his courtiers think of her irreverence. Stuff them.

Best of all, she is skilled at massaging the egos of bosses to get the right firms involved. She has lured big-hitters to chair the organisation - Grand Met's Sir Allen Shepherd, Sainsbury's Sir Peter Davis, 02's Sir David Varney and KPMG's Mike Rake in recent times. And she has made sure BITC is a tangible presence for the biggest firms, dragging bosses out on tours of sink estates, trying to get them to think about the impact for good their business could have.

'I have always done it by companies,' she grins, warming to her theme. 'You've got to get hold of the domino companies that cause others to fall, and the sectors that have more impact on public opinion, the ones that face customers. Because over the last 15 years it's been increasingly recognised that customers can help shape business. Look at Marks & Spencer ...'

M&S might be a sore point, for if there was one instance where she overstepped the mark it was in her spat with Sir Philip Green over his takeover bid for M&S in 2004. Back then, she told the Financial Times that she was worried about whether M&S's reputation as a responsible retailer would be threatened in Green's hands. Green was rightly outraged - and her remarks may have affected shareholder sentiment.

'Look,' she says, when I bring it up, 'I had not expected that particular comment - which was in fact misquoted, but we won't go there - to come out in the public domain and be run on the front page of the FT. But I do think it's the values of any business, disentangling in which business this stuff is real, when it's in the bowels of how they do business. Nobody gets it right, for God's sake, all the time; there are bits going on in supply chains, it's hellishly difficult to do. But it's the quality of the leadership at the most senior level that sets the tone of how they behave.'

Cleverdon speaks in long, ebullient sentences, with endless subordinate clauses and a running commentary on her own comments, often disappearing off at a tangent - so mis-quoting her is not that hard to do. And she's used to shooting from the hip. That, however, was scant consolation for Green, who demanded a public apology and got one. Did he ring her up and let rip?

Cleverdon smiles. 'How did you know?'

Green says he has no recollection of such a conversation, or even of who Cleverdon is.

Have the wounds healed now? Cleverdon purses her lips. 'I was delighted Mr Green decided to set up an academy within two weeks of that. But, no, Arcadia is not a member of BITC at the moment.' She gives me a look. 'Interestingly, it was a member when Stuart Rose ran it. But there are businesses that do not believe BITC will add value.'

Green, when this is run past him, says he bets his family gives more money to good causes than M&S currently does. Another boss says that Cleverdon's closeness to certain corporate leaders - those who buy into her forceful line of reasoning - can be a weakness in the highly competitive world of business. Rival bosses just don't like it. And some high-profile businesses, such as Goldman Sachs and Green's retail empire, simply prefer doing their own thing.

Cleverdon would argue that all bosses should wake up and see the benefits. BITC now puts forward a powerful argument that corporate social responsibility really does benefit members' profitability. In a recent study of BITC to assess its impact over 25 years, Cranfield's Professor David Grayson - a former BITC executive - describes this as phase 3 of its development, after the earlier focus on local enterprise agencies and direct community involvement. 'The business driver has shifted more to competitive advantage for individual companies and the pressures of sustainability as a business challenge.'

And that puts Britain ahead of many in the world. 'The water in the UK has done something to get the business world to think they are more under the spotlight here,' acknowledges Cleverdon. 'People do notice and there is more recognition of what they do here than in other countries.'

BITC under Cleverdon has been smart in finding a way to quantify what companies do and devising awards to demonstrate recognition. Where it has been less effective is in tackling the sensitive issues that exercise the public as much as unemployment - in particular, executive pay. How odd does it look to have bosses expressing concern over sink estates when they earn more in a month than some there earn in a lifetime?

'You say we don't do it a lot on executive pay,' says Cleverdon defensively. 'I say we don't do it publicly.' And she doesn't expand on that.

Would British business have attuned itself so quickly to corporate social responsibility without BITC's push? That's hard to judge - there are now many organisations doing the pushing, some of which see BITC as more of a back- slapping conscience-salve than a radical agitator, and too fixated with glamorous big business.

Cleverdon dismisses that. She is clear that you bring more people along by friendly persuasion than hectoring; you get the top leaders onside first, then legislate to push the laggards.

Cleverdon's approach - part-snobby, part-meritocratic - reflects her background. Born in north London, the eldest of three children in a 'faintly Bohemian' family - her father Douglas commissioned Dylan Thomas to write Under Milk Wood for radio - she says she had no intention of working in business after university. Her education at the local Camden School for Girls had prepared her for the public sector. 'It was set up for the children of the poor but increasingly used by the intelligentsia - we were expected to go onwards and upwards in compassion, run hospitals and schools, that sort of thing.'

It certainly wasn't posh - 'my best friend was the postman's daughter' - which confuses some, as Cleverdon can sound rather grand now. That may reflect the circles she moves in. Those who work at BITC are also used to the trickle of 'nice gels' from expensive schools and well-known families who regularly pop up at the organisation, another by-product of Cleverdon's networking. 'It can be a bit of a finishing school for Roedean,' sighs one former executive.

Cleverdon was pushed into business after a fateful meeting with Garnett at the Industrial Society, set up by her university tutor. 'He said I should get into industry, as he thought I'd be really fascinated by the crackle of business and the challenge.' Garnett got her a job working as a junior industrial relations officer at British Leyland, the car maker. There, she saw business at its worst: '35,000 people on one site, 36 different trade unions, an absolute nightmare in communication, an inability to make it work, shop stewards always knew more than supervisors ...'

But she learnt she had skills - in particular, the ability to persuade difficult individuals to get things done. She inherited this from her father, who was 'not bad at managing prima donnas'. Her facility for charm, remembering names and faces, stemmed from her mother, a vicar's daughter. Bossing men around was simply an extension of telling her younger brothers what to do.

Garnett spotted her talent and later brought her back into the Industrial Society. Then, it was a campaigning organisation supported by big business, with a brief to 'get people to give of their best at work'. It's no secret where Cleverdon picked up the style she applies to BITC.

'John had the best corporates around him. Since then, the Industrial Society (renamed the Work Foundation) has lost the plot and changed its remit and become a think-tank, really.'

So is BITC just the old Industrial Society in exile? She laughs and doesn't disagree.

For Cleverdon, there followed a stint on secondment to Anglo American, and later a job offer to head corporate communications for Lord Rothermere at Associated Newspapers. It could have been a key career move. Garnett persuaded her it was a non-job, saying you could never change anything from inside a business.

By then, Cleverdon had left her first husband, a Lincolnshire landowner, and was falling for Garnett. 'I was a workaholic and didn't know it. My first husband thought I would do a few years and then settle down ... I now spend my life giving speeches at girls' schools and I say: "Girls, watch my lips: never marry anyone till you're out of university for five years." Because you change so much in those first five years, how do you know who is right for you?'

Garnett, however, was 30 years her senior. 'He was a very charismatic, brilliant campaigner, and I learnt more from him than anyone else.' They married later, and had two children. 'We had 20 unbelievably happy years together, and two lovely girls, who were 11 and 15 when John died. But the reason I was able to do the jobs I did from 1986 to 1997 was because he retired, and became enormously involved in bringing them up. When people ask me how I managed, I say: marry a much older man! Ha-ha-ha!'

She headed education and inner cities for the Industrial Society, then left to join BITC after Garnett retired. BITC needed her education knowhow - the organisation wanted to start schemes linking part-time jobs to attendance in school in deprived areas like Tower Hamlets. 'I thought it would be fun,' says Cleverdon.

What did BITC have that the Industrial Society didn't? 'Its chief executive Stephen O'Brien had the ability to get to the most senior level in business and really engage them in the issues. I hadn't realised enough that the power of BITC was that it only played in the boardrooms.'

And that has been heightened under Cleverdon. Now, although lauded for BITC's impact in the past 15 years - with its reach extending into the bleakest communities in Britain - she has to prove that the organisation can keep up with a rapidly changing world. Grayson's report identifies a clutch of weaknesses: that BITC is slow to spot new issues, that it doesn't do enough to challenge its member companies, that it is too quick to start new initiatives without following through on old ones, and that it has a patchy record on tracking and codifying its learning.

It also highlights a string of issues that BITC has to work harder on: climate change, sustainability, diversity, philanthropy and executive pay, among others. Then there is the challenge of tying it all in internationally. For an organisation like BITC, it never stops.

Time for a new chief executive? Some around her think this is the hardest challenge facing her - knowing when to step down from a job she clearly loves and does well. 'There is a real question mark there,' says one. 'She has been there a long time and arguably needs to move on ... But BITC is built around her; it would change dramatically if she left.'

Cleverdon shifts uneasily when I ask and is evasive in response. 'Every work of art is a child of its time,' she says. 'We change the chair every three years, because that brings a whole fresh drive. Stephen Howard joined 18 months ago as managing director - he's a really experienced operator; we're more profitable than we were, we've put on more members than ever before ...'

She has joined a new Gordon Brown initiative, the National Council for Educational Excellence, breaking a long commitment to focus only on BITC work. Could she be edging towards the door? There's little sign of it. She is still emotionally and intellectually wrapped in BITC. 'I am so fascinated whether I can get a corporate leader who is allegedly brains-on-legs to get engaged in what we can do in Burnley, and if I can just get X to meet Y to make it happen ...'

She looks wistful. 'Anyway, we've got to go off and have big ideas in Marylebone now. Thanks for coming in.'


Three challenges facing Cleverdon

1: Keeping 78% of the FTSE-100 in membership of Business in the Community - and recruiting the private-equity firms that are taking over the rest

2: Responding to the PM's request to recommend how business/education partnerships can help achieve a world-class educational system in the UK

3: Developing Prince Charles' May Day Network on climate change



1950: Born 19 April, London. Educated Camden School for Girls

1969: Reads history at Newnham College, Cambridge, gaining a First

1972: Industrial relations trainee, British Leyland, Swindon Body and
Assembly Plant

1978: Communications director at the Industrial Society, later becoming
the director of the education and inner cities division

1992: CEO, Business In The Community

1995: Merged with Action Resource Centre to increase regional impact

1999: Launched Corporate Responsibility Index

2006: Chair of Teach First

2007: Appointed to the National Council for Educational Excellence by
Gordon Brown

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