Tough at the top: Outgoing CBI boss Carolyn Fairbairn
Carolyn Fairbairn, the first female director general of the CBI, is stepping down after one of the most turbulent periods in the business organisation’s 55-year history.
In her time at the top she has dealt with three prime ministers, a seismic rupture with the European Union, endless political turbulence and a lethal pandemic.
None of this was remotely foreseeable when she arrived five years ago, a time that now feels like a far away, half-forgotten era.
The ‘Cameroons’ were in Downing Street, Brexit was a mere blip on the radar, Boris Johnson was Mayor of London and no one had even heard of Covid-19.
‘We had just had the David Cameron victory, which looked like a vote for stability and continuity,’ she says with a wry smile.
Now, with the nation facing the biggest threat for generations to health and wealth, Fairbairn is laying down the gauntlet to Boris to set out his plan to rebuild the economy.
She wants the Prime Minister to present his blueprint at the CBI Conference next week.
‘This is an invitation to him to set out his vision,’ she says.
It is a task she puts on a par with the reconstruction following the Second World War – and she wants Boris to get behind what she calls ‘compassionate growth’.
By that she means the health of the nation should be seen as an asset, not as a cost or a burden, and that talented individuals should not be held back because of gender, race or class.
His plan, she believes, should include a rebooted industrial strategy, plus training and re-skilling so people are able to move out of unviable jobs and into new areas such as green technology.
‘I do think the parallels with wartime are valid,’ she says.
‘In 1942, at the height of the Second World War, when we were sending young men on to the front line and facing the most terrible personal and national tragedy, Churchill commissioned the Beveridge report.
Fairbairn says: ‘Out of that the welfare state and the NHS were born and it set the stage for an extraordinary period of compassionate growth.
‘We cannot wait until Covid is defeated for this. We need a sense of national unity and ambition, as we did then. That is what people want from the Prime Minister.’
In what sounds like a poke at the PM’s tendency towards ‘boosterism’, she adds: ‘There are no prizes for unbounded, unplanned optimism. It is time for a really hard-nosed plan.
‘There is a sense in which people think that if you paint a glorious picture it will be self-fulfilling, but I don’t believe that.
‘There is a need for national unity. We have had so much division over the last five years in so many ways.’
It would help, she says, if there were an economic component to the Government’s Covid briefings. ‘In Sage there is an independent team of scientists who have been hugely influential, but I have wondered over the last few months where was the economic analogue?’ she says. ‘I would really welcome a dashboard for the Covid discussion that includes the impact on employment.’
On Brexit, she fears that firms already battered by the virus will struggle to cope with the added blow of a No Deal departure.
‘It is so incredibly important we get a deal – and that is only amplified by Covid. We have to protect every single job right now,’ says Fairbairn. ‘A chaotic Brexit, leaving without a deal, has consequences we can’t even see.’
She is clearly frustrated that fishing rights have become a sticking point.
‘Not that fishing doesn’t matter, it does. But speak to our automotive sector. The impact there is devastating and that industry is forty times larger than fishing.’ Her one ‘real disappointment’ from her five years at the CBI is that financial services will not be included in any deal that is done.
‘But if we get the shape of a free trade agreement over the next few weeks I do think that can happen next year,’ she says.
‘It is really important and it isn’t just about the City. Two thirds of the jobs are outside London. There need to be conversations around the role the City could play in funding the recovery from Covid, not just in the UK but in Europe.’
On a recent video call on Brexit for 250 business leaders, with Boris Johnson and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, she proposed a joint Brexit taskforce.
On the same page?: Carolyn Fairbairn with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who she hopes will adopt her Brexit task force plan to bring Britain’s business leaders and ministers together
The idea, to bring together business leaders and ministers, was welcomed by the PM. There are promising signs it will be adopted: Whitehall officials have already been in touch. It is needed, she believes, because government and the civil service simply don’t have the bandwidth to deal with Covid and Brexit.
‘The Government can’t go it alone, they need to do things in collaboration. I would bring in the unions, because carrying employees along with you on the Brexit journey is so important. Watch this space.’
Fairbairn will be succeeded at the end of November by Tony Danker, the boss of Be The Business, an organisation set up in 2017 to help improve Britain’s productivity, which is dire.
‘We need a transformation in productivity,’ says Fairbairn.
‘Remember that quote from the economist Paul Kruger? Productivity isn’t everything, but it’s almost everything.’
Now 59, Fairbairn had a distinguished career spanning 25 years before joining the CBI and is also a mother of three.
Her past jobs include directorships of Lloyds Bank and outsourcing group Capita.
She is going to take a well earned break once she says her farewells at the CBI and wants to enjoy some time with family. ‘It’s worklife balance. I have a very long-suffering husband,’ she smiles.
The spouse in question is entrepreneur Peter Chittick, one of the original founders of the Hotel du Vin chain. Perhaps he shouldn’t get too used to her being off work, as she says she intends to return to the commercial world.
It hasn’t all been Brexit and Covid-19 at the CBI.
She has led a drive to help women in business – when she took the top job she created a stir by calling for an end to boozy, blokey business dinners that alienated working mothers.
Fairbairn has also forged a relationship with Frances O’Grady, her counterpart at the TUC, that defies the old macho antler-clashing that has scarred industrial relations since the Seventies.
The two women have appeared on the same platform several times. They even wrote a joint letter last year to the then Prime Minister Theresa May, warning the shock of a No Deal Brexit would be felt for generations.
More partnerships, she says, are needed between government, business leaders and unions to tackle challenges like climate change and new skills.
‘We are going to see a tsunami of redundancies. Whatever happens it is coming.
‘So unless we match young people with new opportunities in green technology and other areas we will be really letting them down,’ she says.
Whether her preference for collaboration over conflict is a particularly feminine approach is open to debate.
But it seems Fairbairn would like to see her male successor carry on down the same route.