Appearing before a phalanx of press photographers for the first time, Digby Jones, the new Confederation of British Industry director general, seemed to be a little unnerved. And understandably so.
For the jolly West Midlander is set to succeed the highly regarded Adair Turner at the helm of the influential business organisation. Yet, barely hours after his appointment, Jones held his own on BBC Radio's The Today Programme, where he was invited to talk about red tape and business.
The fact that Jones braved a grilling from presenter John Humphries is a good indication of his self belief and considerable experience. Birmingham-born Jones is currently chairman of the CBI's West Midlands region and has been a non-executive director and chairman of several companies, covering sectors such as quarry aggregates, local radio and automotive component manufacturing. After completing articles with corporate law firm Edge & Ellison, he worked in property and commercial law and was made a partner in 1984. But it was in corporate finance and client development that Jones made his name.
He was responsible for developing the firm's London presence and establishing representation in many European countries and in the US.
He was also involved in most of the major buyouts and mergers and acquisitions activity in the West Midlands in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Having joined KPMG in 1998 as vice-chairman of corporate finance, Jones acted as close adviser to many public companies across the UK. He has also worked on the development of KPMG's global markets to ensure 'consistency of service levels and quality of approach towards major global clients', according to the firm.
The Big Five firm's senior partner, Mike Rake, showed his enthusiasm for the selection. 'Digby's appointment is a great honour for our firm. We are pleased that one of our senior partners has been selected for such an important role and I know he will continue the outstanding tradition of leadership that has been set by his predecessor,' Rake said. From his experience of business and corporate finance Jones is in good shape to take the CBI forward.
Described by colleagues as a hard-working, ebullient businessman with a wealth of experience, he is a larger-than-life figure who, during his time in the West Midlands, tended to polarise opinion. 'People either love him or hate him,' one businessman said. Jones will be tasked with formulating policy on behalf of the 250,000 public and private companies and 150 trade associations that belong to the CBI. His priorities are to increase the CBI's effectiveness in the regions, make it more relevant to small and medium-sized companies and press for improvements to the transport network, which he says is 'fundamental' to economic success. Jones pledged he was prepared to criticise the government when necessary, but made clear that he had no intention of bowing to demands from some CBI members for a more abrasive approach to the government and the trade unions. CBI president Sir Clive Thompson said of the new director general: 'His breadth of business experience across many sectors, his international work and his understanding of the needs of manufacturing and smaller firms give him the depth and perspective he needs to represent the interests of CBI members.' Having cut his teeth in the West Midlands, manufacturing is a business close to Jones' heart. And so are the workers. He has promised to make business in the UK 'as relevant to the shop floor as it is to the boardroom'. This is also the first time a serving CBI regional chairman has been appointed director general. He believes the CBI could be more meaningful to the UK regions and more relevant to small and medium-sized enterprises. One of the most significant issues for small business at present is red tape. Jones has already expressed his views on the subject on The Today Programme and is keen to intervene where he can. 'One of the things I want to do is get round the UK to find where the burden of red tape hits hardest. It is important to learn the facts of all this and get some real examples of where the burden is hurting the bottom line, harming investment decisions or harming employment,' he says. After establishing hard facts, Jones says he will go to see trade secretary Stephen Byers and ask what can be done. The reward for such an influential appointment is a £250,000 salary. Jones has been given a five-year tenure after being picked from a shortlist of four men and a woman. Reports suggest this is to be around £100,000 less than Jones earned at KPMG. But he is happy to take the pay cut and a return to KPMG seems likely. His time at KPMG has taught Jones about international operations, something Adair Turner has worked hard to bring to the CBI. But aside from lending their considerable experience, could the Big Five do more to help business? 'I am sure they can. But they usually charge for it,' Jones says.
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