Personnel Today interviews David Frost, director-general, BCC

Many people would be reluctant to take a job in a town they knew nothing about and had no links to, but at 25, David Frost loved the idea.

After growing up in the North East, and then moving to London to study – and briefly work in – economics, the thought of joining the Walsall Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) excited him. “The attraction was that I had no knowledge of the Midlands, no friends or family there, and that was a challenge,” he said.

First step on the path

This arbitrary move in 1979 had a profound effect on Frost, and set him on the path to his current role as director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC).

“I saw the collapse of large numbers of manufacturers, but also a cluster of successful businesses,” he said. “I saw people putting their lives on the line for their businesses, and I had a lot of respect for them. I also saw goods being exported around the world, which gave me a buzz.”

After seven years working on behalf of small and medium-sized businesses in Walsall, Frost became chief executive of the organisation. In 1994, he moved on to become chief executive of the East Mercia CCI.

Major battles

There he had a staff of 120 and a membership in excess of 2,000. He was fighting major battles for the M6 toll road and against a workplace car park levy. But still he felt the need to go higher up the chain to really make a difference. “I could see that there were many issues affecting businesses in my region that needed to be dealt with on a national level,” he said.

So Frost took his significant experience from the West Midlands and, on the first day of 2003, took the top job in the national network of Chambers of Commerce.

He sees his main challenge as director-general as getting across the message that the BCC represents firms of all sizes and from all regions. “I have been to Rotherham on a cold January evening and seen the immense passion people have for their region,” he said. “These are not multinationals they know the future of their region is dependent on the success of their business.”

There are certainly plenty of issues affecting BCC members, and Frost does not shy away from giving his opinion on them. One of the highest items on the agenda is the skills crisis and Lord Leitch’s call for employers to sign a pledge to train their staff in the basics.

“Businesses competing globally are being told to pick up on failed government policies,” said Frost. “They think: ‘My job is to run a business, why should I be doing this? And by the way, I’ve got a queue of Poles outside’.”

Strong work ethic

Frost said Polish immigration had transformed the UK economy and accounted for up to one-third of many company workforces. “They have a better attitude to work and far better education,” he said. “It is nothing to do with low wages. School-leavers cannot compete on skills or work ethic.”

Frost added that immigration from Eastern Europe had limited wage inflation, and he backed Gordon Brown’s strict line on pay in the face of Civil Service strikes.

“The chancellor is right to control public sector pay,” he said. “They not only have better pay and better holidays than the private sector they have better pensions.” He also supported the moderate rise in the National Minimum Wage announced earlier this month, and said tens of thousands of jobs would go if it went up to £7.50 as the Transport and General Workers’ Union wanted.

As for the pensions crisis, Frost insisted small businesses needed help with the administration of the proposed personal accounts, and warned that it could be a lot of effort for little return.

“The government has too high expectations of [personal accounts],” he said. “Employees do not trust pensions. We have members who have offered to put in 6% for a 3% contribution from employees, and the workers don’t take it up.”

HR insight

Frost’s wife, Mari, is head of HR operations at the Midcounties Co-operative Society, and he said this gave him insight into the profession. “HR seems to be constantly justifying its own existence. It needs to quantify what it adds to the bottom line. Some businesses see HR as a cost rather than a benefit, but because of the sheer amount of legislation, HR is becoming more proactive,” he said.

His wife’s patience with people must come in handy on family holidays. She travels with their two teenage daughters and waits for Frost to arrive by motorbike. Last year, while the family flew, Frost completed an eight-day, 3,200-mile round trip to Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

This year he is taking one of his five bikes to the Algarve. The journey will involve negotiating some uncharted territory, but then this has never held him back in the past.

Frost’s CV

  • 2003-present Director-general, British Chambers of Commerce
  • 2001-2002 Chief executive, Coventry and Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce
  • 1994-2001 Chief executive, East Mercia Chamber of Commerce
  • 1986-1994 Chief executive, Walsall Chamber of Commerce
  • 1979-1986 Walsall Chamber of Commerce
  • 1976-1979 Economist LCCI, London




 

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