November 16, 2010 12:17 am

New CBI chief faces intense challenges

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One thing few people realise about John Cridland, says Richard Lambert, is how tough a negotiator he can be, whether it is with ministers or trade unions.

“I remember coming out of one bruising encounter with our friends in the trade unions and saying to him: ‘Thank God you are on our side and not on theirs,’ ” said the current CBI chief of the man who will succeed him.

Mr Lambert said Mr Cridland had a “giant brain” and at crucial moments could pull out minutiae such as “paragraph 17 note three”. He was also “a good listener and a great communicator, and he understands the needs of the members almost instinctively”.

Mr Cridland will now have to translate the respect in which he is held among CBI members and policymakers into becoming a figure recognised by the public as the “voice of business” – especially if he wants to improve business’s standing.

Although he has made many media appearances as deputy director-general, he does not as yet have the profile of his predecessors such as Mr Lambert or the outspoken Lord Digby Jones.

Challenges will be intense as the nation looks to business to provide growth and jobs to replace those lost through public spending cuts. If austerity leads to more industrial action, Mr Cridland’s championing of tougher strike laws could prove explosive.

Mr Cridland believes ministers have listened to the CBI’s pleas to shape the immigration cap in ways that do not restrict companies from bringing in the staff they need.

But thorny issues such as bankers’ bonuses lie ahead. “The important part about executive remuneration and bonuses is that shareholders and other stakeholders can see that it is earned,” he said.

The CBI will continue to press ministers on issues such as corporation tax reform to stop more companies moving their tax base abroad, and investing in infrastructure.

Mr Cridland said there were dangers such as the lights going out if energy infrastructure was not rebuilt, and a potential shortage of technicians and engineers to replace those who will retire this decade.

His appointment was welcomed by corporate chiefs such as Justin King, chief executive of J Sainsbury, and even by some of the CBI’s critics.

Howard Wheeldon, senior strategist at brokers BGC Partners, said the CBI had lost its way in recent times, but Mr Cridland offered a “degree of consistency” and “might be a useful pair of hands”. Under its new leader, the CBI needed to do more for smaller companies and press manufacturing’s case harder, he said.

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