“In the 12 months ahead, the challenge for business leaders is twofold: yes, we need to break down the barriers in front of us, but simultaneously we also need to open up opportunities. Today, I want to talk about the opportunities. The next decade. It’s time to make big bets as a country, big bets as business. And that’s why we call it: Seize the Moment.” – Tony Danker, Director-General, CBI.
Economic opportunity is everywhere in the UK. It’s why this year’s CBI Annual Conference took place across eight regions, over three days. With speakers including political leaders, CEOs, entrepreneurs and SMEs, the focus was on looking past the challenges of today and going all out for growth.
As Tony Danker, CBI Director General, said in his opening speech: “It’s kind of tiring to have to think about the future after everything we’ve come through. I know it’s kind of hard to solve for a new world when the current one presents real problems. But as we emerge from trying times, our very best businesses are already surging ahead. They are going fast. They are growing fast.”
His message was simple: it’s time to seize the moment.
He urged both business and government to create momentum following the pandemic, Brexit and COP26. Not to slip back to business as usual, but to raise ambition to make the UK the most competitive, dynamic and future-focused economy in the world.
With both the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition making it clear that they believe in the critical role business has to play in this, how can your firm get involved, and benefit from some of the prizes on offer?
The conference got under the skin of the CBI’s six Seize the Moment themes, to fill in some of the detail on what’s needed to make the vision a reality. So here, we break down some of the key takeaways for your business:
To be a part of a decarbonised economy
“There is now a genuine belief in the challenge of climate change. The CBI teamed up with Deloitte on an excellent initiative, the goal 13 platform. And we published the latest impact report from this in October just before COP26. 79% of businesses believe climate is a mega trend. 89% of businesses have at least one climate related target. And what gets measured gets done.” Lord Bilimoria, President, CBI.
On decarbonisation, the debate focused on how business can support government to fill in the policy detail needed to deliver on the promises made in Glasgow at COP26.
In his speech, CBI President Lord Bilimoria credited the government’s announcement around charging points for electric vehicles as “exactly the kind of detail we need to seize the opportunities of the green industrial revolution”.
But firms shouldn’t use the lack of detail as an excuse not to act in the meantime. As McLaren’s Ruth Nic Aoidh said: “We can't wait for others to tell us what to do. Be that governments or be that other industries, we all just need to take leadership.”
There were also warnings about the importance of helping everyone on the race to net zero – especially smaller businesses that may lack the resources to dedicate to making the necessary changes.
Nevertheless, speakers agreed it’s time to get real about green growth – and you can find out more from the sessions here.
To fuel an innovation economy
“The pandemic changed the way we live, work and communicate forever. We need to embrace this disruption, and we firmly believe technology combined with human ingenuity holds most of the solutions,” Simon Eaves, CEO, Accenture.
Capitalising on a shift of mindset over the pandemic, companies want to work together and adopt the right technologies to crack their shared challenges, like net zero or labour shortages.
But as one session concluded, bosses need to get more tech literate, and there needs to be a clearer focus on reskilling. That will help with the mass adoption of new technologies.
“Cloud is the enabler, data is the driver, and AI is the differentiator” became a recurring theme throughout the event – and the sooner firms grasp that, the sooner technology can help solve some of our urgent questions, said Accenture’s Eaves.
We also need to get better at financing the diversity of innovation and entrepreneurial opportunities, as panellists highlighted that access to venture capital isn’t evenly spread across the country, or across all sectors.
“We’re good at the ‘R’ less good on the ‘D’”. That needs to change, said Heba Bevan, CEO and Founder at UtterBerry, because it also leads to more exporting opportunities.
To build a globalised economy
“In the UK, we make some of the best products in the world. We’re the most regulated manufacturing country. Everywhere we trade, people trust our products. They know they can rely on them and they know they’ll get what they paid for. It’s a tremendous advantage,” Rich Clothier, MD, Wyke Farms.
On trade, the passion of speakers already busy exporting helped focus the attention on how to raise the levels of ambition for all businesses.
“If you are exporting, you're more competitive, you're more productive and you're more resilient as a business,” said Lord Bilimoria. “But it’s not just about having the best product in the world, you’ve got to have added value service and restless, non-stop innovation.”
To help more businesses gain more confidence, the CBI is launching a Global Trade Hub, to improve access to advice and insight from fellow businesses and raise the profile of the government support on offer.
To create a regionally thriving economy
“Business in the North believes in levelling up and is getting its shoulder behind that wheel. But we can’t do these things alone. We need to partner. And the momentum needs to grow,” Heidi Mottram, CEO, Northumbrian Water.
The topic of levelling up was the central theme of Tony Danker’s speech, as he launched the CBI’s Centre for Thriving Regions to coordinate the private sector’s commitment to that ambition. Because business commitment and investment are what's needed to make a difference, he said.
Although plenty of questions were raised around what it would really take to get private sector leadership to the table, local firms and local government have an innate understanding of what an area needs. If they work together and put together a proper plan for taking clusters from good to great – and they can secure buy-in from the local community – there’s a strong chance they can help the UK government succeed in its levelling up agenda.
To embrace a changing workforce
“The decisions we take now as businesses to ensure we can attract and retain talent will impact our progress for years to come,” Simon Winfield, MD, Hays.
In the conference conversations about a changing workforce, the focus was on getting the government to be much more agile on skills and immigration needs.
But there is plenty businesses can control.
“You’ve got to continually innovate and have your people innovate with you. Be bold, do things differently and step into this new world of work,” said Gordon Wilson, CEO of Advance.
Whether it’s adapting how your recruit or demonstrating you care, treating employees as individuals – with passions, beliefs and responsibilities – was a key top tip in this session write-up.
To nurture a healthier nation
“The UK has a tremendous place in life sciences. The country needs to really turn this innovation, this great academic science, into a commercial reality. There's already a lot of this happening, but even more. And the only way to do this is to build ecosystems. You need good academic science. You need small companies, big companies and, of course, you need venture capital. But these days, money flows around the world and money finds good ideas.” – Pascal Soriot, CEO, AstraZeneca.
The sessions on health covered two sides of the same coin. On one side, speakers looked at how the UK’s health and life sciences sector can build on its achievements during the pandemic. On the other, it was about how all firms could lock in the behaviours they adopted towards employee wellbeing. Both can be a source of economic advantage to the UK. And both have a role to play in reducing demand on the NHS.
For the strength of the life sciences sector, familiar themes re-emerged on the importance of public and private organisations working together in pursuit of a common vision, and of the importance of innovation and data.
But it’s not all about breakthrough technology. Axa Health CEO Tracy Garrad highlighted how workplace health providers innovated to find different – and efficient pathways – to treatment when the NHS was under most pressure.
And now health is firmly on the boardroom agenda, England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty urged firms to improve their occupational health provision. We must now “use the time people have at work to improve lifelong health,” he said.
Read more on how the CBI will deliver for your business and how you can get involved to break down barriers and open up opportunities for your business.