Business

High expectations are the key to everything

CBI president Paul Drechsler (second right) pictured on a visit to Belfast in January. Included (from left) are Trevor Lockhart, chair of CBI Northern Ireland, Angela McGowan, CBI's director for Northern Ireland, and Gareth Planck, partner at Eversheds

AFTER fulfilling his three years as CBI UK president, Paul Drechsler is now stepping down.

Born in Ireland, he has an engineering degree from Trinity College Dublin. Despite his long career in British industry (which included 24 years at ICI and holding the chair for Wates Group and Bibby Line Group), he has still not lost his Irish accent or his ability to bring a little bit of craic into even the most serious of meetings.

In his time at the CBI, Paul brought an unmatched warmth and passion to the role of president, representing all CBI members, from entrepreneurs to multinationals, with conviction and pride - not just in the UK but right across the world as he accompanied our director general to meetings in Davos, China, Brussels and many more global destinations.

There is no doubt CBI has been invigorated by the energy that Paul brought to the presidency role. He has helped us to make progress on some of the most challenging business and political issues the country has faced in a generation.

Where many may have shied away, Paul has been vocal. Only last week his Brexit warning to the UK government made the Financial Times headlines.

“If we do not have a customs union, there are sectors of manufacturing society in the UK which risk becoming extinct,” he said as he singled out the UK automotive industry, which employs 800,000 people across the UK, for facing significant disruption. On the UK-EU customs union question he didn't miss and hit the wall either: “There's zero evidence that independent trade deals will provide any economic benefit to the UK that's material. It's a myth”.

As CBI president Paul has been enthusiastic about many policy areas. His personal commitment to the importance of great education has shone through in many of his speeches. On this topic, he often likes to quote Nelson Mandela who famously said: “Education is the most powerful weapon to change the world”.

Paul remains a firm believer that all of the world's challenges in terms of disease, poverty, peace and climate change can only be solved with a best in class education system that gives every young person a chance in life and preparation for the world of work.

Indeed, my first encounter with Paul occurred when I was just 10 days into my new job at the CBI. He had flown over to Belfast in October 2016 to represent the CBI at a Business in the Community breakfast. Although I was not exactly sure what the CBI president might choose to focus his speech on, when he took to the stage that morning it soon became clear he was passionate about business being a great partner and supporter of educational institutions.

Paul, like most CEOs and chairs of company boards, is a strategic thinker. He recognises that if we fail to invest in young people in terms of their education and skills, then the future economic prosperity and living standards of the whole country is at risk. In Northern Ireland nearly one in every four children are currently living in poverty and unfortunately today there is still a strong correlation between postcode and a child's academic achievements.

Much work still remains to be done in terms of how we allocate resources to young people and how we ensure that they become economically independent in the future, but I am certain that Paul's focus on education and skills will continue to be a key policy area for the CBI for many years to come.

Another recurring theme of Paul's presidency has been how business fits into the world in which we live. The CBI's ‘Trust in Business' campaign was launched during his term. There's no doubt in my mind that business, just like education, is a force for good. The evidence clearly shows that rising economic activity levels are synonymous with better health, longevity, human rights and tolerance.

Wealthier countries (as measured by GDP) are much more likely to be democratic, respect human rights, promote women's rights, gay rights and protect the environment. Wealthier countries with strong support for commerce are less likely to go to war and as the World Happiness Report shows – their citizens are much more content.

However, the business community's contribution to creating wealth (and those much-needed revenues that funds our health and education services) is often overlooked. Paul often compares society's confidence in the business community to a game of snakes and ladders. He argues that businesses can work hard to get ahead in terms of trust, but when one firm behaves badly everyone is forced back to the starting point and that trust must be rebuilt all over again.

The CBI president would tell the business community that for society to trust business, firms must be considerate of their staff, customers and the communities in which they operate. Rebuilding the reputation of business takes time and once again this is one area of work that the CBI will continue to focus on in the years ahead.

Paul Drechsler's contribution to the CBI was enormous in the three-year window he kindly gave to us. His visits to Northern Ireland (three times in the last year and a half) went down extraordinarily well with the local community and his leadership and openness were greatly admired.

But as he moves on to new horizons the CBI can take great comfort from the fact that our incoming president is another amazing leader in John Allan, chair of Tesco and Barratt Developments. He will be elected today at our annual general meeting in London and I'm confident he will be just as supportive to the business community (and as vocal) as his predecessor.

:: Angela McGowan is director of CBI Northern Ireland. Follow her at @angela_mcgowan

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