UK business: What impact did Sir Digby Jones have as head of the CBI?

This summer marks the end of a colourful six years for the CBI, as members wave goodbye to their enthusiastic and sometimes controversial leader.

Sir Digby Jones, outgoing director-general, has never shied away from speaking his mind during his record-breaking tenure at Britain’s biggest employers’ organisation, often causing sparks to fly on both sides of the workplace divide.

He was no more retiring in his final week at the organisation calling for greater reforms of the public sector, a major re-think of Britain’s role in Europe, more investment in the transport infrastructure and a more cohesive skills policy.

He was appointed to the role in January 2000 for a non-renewable five year term, but in 2003 this was extended for another two years at the request of the CBI members.

Jones took an audibly more vocal role than some of his predecessors, taking the message of British business to more than 60 different countries across the globe, and finally being awarded a Knighthood in 2005.

His tenure has been marked at times by extraordinary contrasts – never more so than in the organisation’s dealings with the trade unions. He struck a distinctly conciliatory tone when, in an unusual move, he agreed to address the Trade Union Congress and told delegates they had much in common with the CBI.

Many commentators felt this could usher in a new era in employment relations, but the harmonious atmosphere didn’t last long and Jones fired a parting shot at the trade union movement by saying it was irrelevant and backward looking.

Surprisingly, but perhaps in a bid to get off on the right foot with new director-general Richard Lambert, none of the major unions were prepared to speak to Personnel Today about the Digby Jones era.

The two contrasting sides to Jones’ personality were highlighted best in his paradoxical choices on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs which included Neil Diamond, Bette Midler and Elgar.

He has, however, been a consistent advocate of reforms to many aspects of business life believing the Blair government to have missed the chance to bring about any real change in areas such as planning, the public sector, planning and transport.

There have been some key HR themes running though his leadership, most notably the skills agenda where he campaigned for improved basic skills, better vocational training and more accessible education.

Although he blamed the government for many of the UK’s skills woes, he also called on employers to get more involved in getting education right at a local level. He identified productivity and competitiveness as the key issues facing British business and said his spell in charge had helped to modernise the CBI, giving it a greater voice at governmental level.

Life after the CBI will see Jones taking up a number of part-time directorships, but it seems unlikely that the loudest ever “voice of business” will be silent for long.

Sir Digby Jones

  • Born in Birmingham on 28 October 1955.
  • After spending some time in the Royal Navy he joined corporate law firm Edge & Ellison in 1978.
  • He joined KPMG as vice-chairman of corporate finance in 1998.
  • In 2000 Jones was headhunted by the CBI to become director-general.
  • In 2005 he became Sir Digby Jones, receiving a knighthood in the New Year Honours list.

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