Sir Clive Thompson is an accomplished businessman, one of the best in Britain. But will he become a liability as president of the Confederation of British industry? After his inflammatory performance at the Annual Dinner earlier this year, some insiders at the employers' trade body are worried about a repeat performance. Ahead of the this month's CBI conference David Smith explores the relationship between the acerbic Thompson and Adair Turner, the CBI's smooth-talking director-general (p32).
He asks whether they can hold the organisation together as its members struggle with the prospect of a recession that is already compared with the Crash of 1929. This year's conference in Birmingham will be an important test of Thompson's political skills when he plays host to four government ministers, including chancellor Gordon Brown and Trade and Industry secretary Peter Mandelson. The media will be watching closely to see whether any critical remarks sour relations with the Government.
Thompson has rightly said that the CBI should not be regarded as the business wing of the Labour Party. The confederation, formed in 1977, represents the interests of British business with its 250,000 member companies.
It has a voice not only in Britain but in Europe and on the international stage. Gerhard Schroder, Germany's new chancellor, has chosen the CBI's conference to make his first big speech in Britain.
Against this background, Thompson is a controversial choice. His blunt approach has served him well in his business life where he has produced an extraordinary transformation at Rentokil Initial, turning it from an operation employing 4,000 people to a group employing 140,000. Such has been the consistency of the company's growth that Thompson is referred to in parts of the City as Mr Twenty Per Cent, a reference to the growth in earnings he has delivered during his 16 years in charge.
Yet his style can be autocratic and his language undiplomatic. When he linked trade union recognition to 'pest control', it drew a thin smile from Tony Blair, a curled lip from John Monks, TUC secretary-general, and alienated several of the CBI's more progressive members.
Thompson has since claimed it was a joke that should be forgotten. 'I very rarely find that jokes I make are worth repeating,' he added.
On a more serious note he has accused the Government of naivity in its approach to business and has indicated that it does not listen sufficiently to people like him. In matters of substance he claims not to be far apart from Turner, the former McKinsey man who becomes his partner, but their styles could hardly be more different. Turner will whisper discreetly into the right ear. Thompson is more inclined to shoot from the hip.
In theory this good cop, bad cop approach should bring an effective combination to relations with the outside world. In practice it could end up putting an intolerable strain on the CBI. Thompson must show that he knows how to sidestep a fight as well as rush into one.