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CB Why?

CB Why?

The CBI, Britain’s leading business lobby group, is supposed to set an example on issues of governance and purpose. It’s now facing a crisis.

Long stories short

  • JPMorgan sent a memo to managing directors asking them to work from the office for five days a week.
  • EY, one of the Big Four accounting firms, called off a plan to break up its audit and consulting units.
  • Juul Labs agreed to pay $462m to settle claims by six US states after being accused of targeting teenagers with its vaping product.

CB Why?

Britain’s leading business lobbying group is in crisis: the government has suspended engagement with the CBI, companies are reviewing membership and events have been cancelled.

Tony Danker, its director-general, was sacked this week following allegations of workplace misconduct. Further claims of sexual harassment and rape have been made that are separate from the allegations against Danker, who said he was shocked to be dismissed and had “unintentionally” made colleagues uncomfortable.

So what? The scandal at an organisation meant to be the standard-bearer for values in British business is a reminder of the scale and risk of  sexual misconduct issues at work.

If the job of a board is to oversee culture and strategy, then the CBI faces a deeper crisis on both fronts. 

Governance: the CBI’s board is led by Brian McBride, the former UK CEO of Amazon, and includes its previous president Lord Karan Bilimoria, founder of Cobra Beer; Dame Vivian Hunt, previously senior partner at McKinsey; and Clare Barclay, CEO of Microsoft UK, among others. Questions for the board fall under at least four headings:

i) Culture – if this was, as the board says, “organisational failure” involving a catalogue of stories that caused “revulsion” on the board, why have serious allegations lingered for so long?

ii) Process – why was Danker dismissed without being invited to put his position, as he claims he was assured he would be? 

iii) Leadership – did the CBI panic in appointing Rain Newton-Smith, the CBI’s former chief economist and part of the previous leadership team, at barely a day’s notice, without a competitive and open process?

iv) Communication – who’s speaking for the CBI Board as it digs the organisation out from here? 

Purpose: the crisis has led to questioning of the role of the CBI. It has a history of struggling to balance its competing roles of advocacy for members and providing them with access to government.  The board now needs to direct the new leadership to choose, and the lesson of the last difficult decade of relations with the Conservative government is that it’s more powerful prioritising the forthright defence of business interests than currying favour in Westminster and Whitehall for the sake of access.  

The CBI is only 58 years old. It claims to represent 190,000 businesses but its roots go wide, not deep. To survive it needs to make sure three things happen:

Investigate. The sexual misconduct claims brought by more than a dozen women, including one of rape at a 2019 office party on a Thames riverboat, have to be investigated quickly and thoroughly.

Communicate. McBride has kept a low profile since Danker’s initial suspension last month. One attendee at a recent members’ meeting said he may not even have said sorry. He needs to be as frank and forthcoming as he would expect his members’ directors to be.

Advocate. The CBI has struggled with political decisions on which it should have taken clear, principled stands that represent the interests and attitudes of the majority of its members:

  • The Euro. Under Adair Turner, it campaigned in favour of the single currency. His successor Digby Jones retreated from this position, saying the debate was becoming “sterile”.
  • Scotland. The CBI registered as a supporter of the No campaign in the 2014 independence referendum, then U-turned after members in Scotland quit the CBI to maintain neutrality.
  • Brexit. The CBI campaigned vigorously against leaving the EU. JCB, the construction equipment company, quit – apparently in response. Relations with Boris Johnson’s government were chilly and hardline Brexiteers would still like “to see the death of the CBI because it has always been too influential a voice for their liking and not in their direction of travel,” says Paul Drechsler, CBI director from 2015-18.

But the decision to oppose Brexit was the right one. Government efforts to marginalise the CBI in response didn’t change that. The damage to British business from erecting barriers to trade with Europe has been huge, and the CBI’s willingness on Danker’s watch to accept the Brexit issue as settled in order to repair the relationship with Downing Street was clearly wrong. The economic price of Brexit is in the numbers.  

“If the CBI hadn’t existed we would have had a much harder Brexit than the one we had,” Drechsler says. “All the work that Philip Hammond and Theresa May tried to do to get a softer landing was because they were listening to the voice of business.”

This may be so, but a more obvious lesson is that there is no enduring benefit for business in having a CBI that minces its words. If McBride and Lord Bilimoria think their role now is to weather the Danker affair and return to business as usual, they will need to think again.

(Tortoise has worked with the CBI in hosting events and webinars.)


Tough luck Son

Xi Jinping’s campaign to tame China’s tech sector has driven away one of its first backers. Softbank, led by billionaire Masayoshi Son, has offloaded around $7.3 billion in shares of tech giant Alibaba this year, massively reducing a stake that at one point accounted for a third of the company. The “defensive” decision to forward-sell stock comes just as the Japanese group is hatching plans to list Arm, a UK-based chip designer. Meanwhile Alibaba’s share price has been in the doldrums following Beijing’s suspension of a planned IPO by its sister company, Ant Financial. But it ticked up after the FT reported on Softbank’s sell-off. Over the past 14 months, SoftBank reaped an average of $92 for each Alibaba share – far below the company’s all-time high of $317.

culture society, identity and belonging

Dominion dominoes

Robert Schwarz, a shareholder in Fox, has sued Rupert Murdoch and four other board members this week, saying they failed to stop Fox News from reporting falsehoods about the 2020 election and neglected their duty to guard against legal and reputational risk. Directors Lachlan Murdoch, Chase Carey, Roland Hernandez and Jacques Nasser were all named. Schwarz is arguing that Fox knew it was reporting dangerous misinformation “from the Board down” but was more concerned about ratings. He alleges that failure to act on “red flags” resulted in two lawsuits by voting-tech companies Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic USA that are seeking damages of $4 billion. Apparently, he’s not the only one considering action against the Fox board for, as one law professor puts it, distributing blatantly false information while calling itself a news company. 

The 100-Year life Health, education and government

Quit the country

Did the “Great Resignation” ever really happen? Quitting one’s job was all the rage during Covid; some argued it had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In China, corporate malaise is taking a form of its own: workers are swapping high-pressure, white collar jobs for manual labour. Widely-shared posts on social media show tech workers becoming cashiers, accountants peddling street sausages and a content manager delivering takeout. Job-swapping follows the trend of “lying flat” and doing nothing that emerged two years ago, posing a direct challenge to the CCP’s motto to “serve the people wholeheartedly”. The debate over working conditions in China was brought to the fore recently after the deaths of two employees at an e-commerce company.

our planet climate and geopolitics

Wall Street’s water

Large Wall Street investors stand accused of depleting California’s precious groundwater to grow high-value nuts. An investigation by Bloomberg Green has found that six banks, pension funds and insurers, including TIAA and UBS, have quadrupled their farmland under management in California since 2010 to 120,000 acres. They’ve spent millions of dollars digging deep wells in the drought-stricken state, mainly in service of growing permanent crops like almonds, rather than more environmentally-friendly, seasonal crops. The bet is a sinister one: food will be more expensive in a hotter world.

capital economy, business and finance

Inflation discounts

Tesco has cut the price of milk for the first time since May 2020. But as inflation rises, the struggle to stay competitive has been costly. The supermarket’s overall pre-tax profits halved to £1 billion, due to a large write-off in its property portfolio and absorbing higher supplier costs. In a bid to retain shoppers squeezed by the cost of living crisis Tesco has been price-matching with discount brands Aldi and Lidl. Has it paid off? Hargreaves Lansdown says the supermarket’s recent focus on value, its online services and a decent dividend make it one of the “stronger options in the grocery sector with an attractive income potential”. The road ahead remains rocky though: the IMF said this week inflation will fall more slowly than anticipated, to 7 per cent this year and 4.9 per cent in 2024.

Thanks for reading.

Jeevan Vasagar

Barney Macintyre


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