Tony Danker, new director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, tells The Review why British business stands on the cusp of a once-in-a-generation reset moment
by William Monroe
The UK was at a critical point in its history when the Confederation of British Industry’s (CBI’s) new director-general, Tony Danker, began his five-year post on 30 November 2020. He took the reins as talks between the EU and UK over a trade deal went to the wire, before a deal was struck just days before the end of the transition period, amid a second national lockdown, as the government attempted to maintain control of rising Covid-19 rates.
Battle stationsTony found himself on the frontlines as UK businesses and consumers prepared for a tough winter punctuated by stay-at-home orders, soaring case numbers and deaths. In the face of what Tony refers to as an “unprecedented number of short-term challenges”, the CBI supported its members on a range of issues, including workplace testing, financial support for already-suffering sectors and, later, the roadmap out of lockdown and vaccine passports.
"I have been struck by how good the cascade is from firms on the ground straight into the Cabinet. I’m really proud of it"
His office in those first few months was his spare bedroom – not the ideal environment perhaps when taking over the helm of an organisation with 250 employees. This didn’t deter Tony, a self-professed extrovert, from reaching out via an “incredible volume of Zoom calls” to meet everybody personally. “My PA said she had never seen anybody do as many internal meetings! I feel I’ve really got under the skin of the organisation and the people.”
Shaping the business agenda
Tony grew up in Belfast’s Jewish community amid the Troubles. He left Belfast in 1990 to study law at Manchester University, before taking up the role of deputy director of the Office of the Chief Rabbi in London after graduating. “The then chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, was an inspiring national figure and when he asked me to work for him I was deeply honoured,” he says. It was here that Tony first cut his teeth in policymaking, before he moved into communications – a natural fit given his ebullient personality – first as director of public affairs at The Communications Group, and then director of communications at McKinsey.
He is well-versed on the inner workings of government and policymaking. An MA in public administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government was followed by a stint as senior government consultant for McKinsey in Washington and London between 2005 and 2008. He then spent two years working as a special adviser in the Cabinet Office and then Treasury, and was at the heart of “devising fresh and radical approaches to protect and sustain the economy” amid the economic slump that followed the 2008 global financial crisis.
Tony Danker on career advice for young professionals
Your twenties and thirties is the time for you to build skills and tackle your demons. If you’re less good at managing spreadsheets or public speaking, do that. Go into all the things you’re worried you’re bad at, do them early, and master them.
Build your networks at an early stage. I always loved meeting new people and staying in touch with them – consultancy clients, journalists, contacts in politics that were special advisers or civil servants. Everybody grows up into positions of greater influence and impact. All of a sudden you turn around one day, and you have a Rolodex of people who are running companies, who are leading academics. So, start your networking now and build real relationships – it will be networking for life.
Such experience has no doubt proved invaluable in his dealings with government at the highest level, but he is keen to highlight that, before he joined the CBI – which has a team of over 100 economic and policy specialists – it already had a strong framework in place to allow it to work effectively alongside government to help shape the business agenda and deliver for its members amid the pandemic.
“I have been struck by how good the cascade is from firms on the ground straight into the Cabinet. I’m really proud of it,” he says. “Government has an understandable fear of letting business into the room to make policy, but the reason why schemes like furlough worked was because CBI policymakers and Treasury officials were in a room together getting live feedback from members iterating as we learnt.”
A ten-year visionReflecting on six months in the role (at the time we spoke to him), Tony says that his initial focus was on helping members through the disruption from the pandemic and the EU–UK trade talks, but he has also been working on the CBI’s ten-year economic plan. “My top objectives are around decarbonisation, innovation, and technology adoption. And skills, of course. We share those priorities with government. We are in a once-in-a-generation reset moment with the lessons of Brexit, Covid-19, net zero, and new technologies. If we don’t do it now, we never will.”
He is clear that environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors will be a key focus for the CBI over the coming decade. Concentrating on the ‘E’ in ESG will be particularly vital, as the financial services sector seeks to facilitate the transition to a net zero carbon economy.
Tony has seen a shift from businesses needing to be persuaded on net zero, to now seeing it as a source of competitive advantage. “This is particularly true for financial services in the City … It’s not just about the behaviour of domestic firms, it’s also about the chance for Britain to export ‘green’ financial products and services … That’s a place where, in our view, Britain can genuinely lead the world.”
Brexit and financial servicesThe ‘reset moment’ Tony refers to includes the opportunity of a “collaborative political climate” in which “financial services equivalents, neutral recognition of professional qualifications and data adequacy can all get resolved”.
"Business investment in Britain has been falling – Britain needs to get business investment back"
He has some sympathy, though, with the view that the financial services sector has been overlooked in the trade deal: “It is one of our most competitive sectors and there’s not a lot in that trade deal, if anything, to advance that ... Some of the work we’ve been doing on our economic vision for Britain is all about the global profit holes where Britain should be competing, and a lot of them are in financial services.”
Silver liningsWith the UK’s vaccine rollout continuing apace, prospects for the economy are looking brighter. “The big question – and this is a question for the next year or two – is how does the economy recover?” Tony says. “We can’t have a recovery that’s based only on government spending and consumer spending. Business investment in Britain has been falling – Britain needs to get business investment back.”
Tony Danker's CV
2020–present: Director-general of the CBI
2017–2020: CEO of Be the Business
2010–2017: Various roles at Guardian Media Group, including working in the policy and strategy team, international director, and chief strategy officer
2008–2010: Special adviser at HM Treasury
2005–2008: Senior government consultant, McKinsey & Company (Washington DC and London)
2004–2005: MA in public administration at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government
1998–2004: Director of communications, McKinsey & Company
1996–1998: Director of public affairs at The Communications Group
1994–1996: Deputy director of the Office of the Chief Rabbi
1990–1993: LLB law degree at The University of Manchester
Tony notes that business investment has been sluggish in comparison to other G7 countries in the past few years. A quarterly Bank of England Monetary policy report, published in November 2019, points the finger at Brexit-related uncertainty in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum. It states that “Brexit has been a key factor in the stalling of business investment”, leading to cumulative growth in investment spending of just 0.4% between 2016 and 2019 – a weak return in comparison to other major advanced economies.
“This notion of stimulating business investment in the next couple of years is central to how well the British economy recovers, so it’s going to be something that we’re pushing hard," says Tony.
As former CEO of Be the Business, the organisation created in 2017 with a mandate to transform the UK’s business productivity, Tony is well placed to comment on the UK’s historically poor productivity record.
Figures published in April 2021 by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that UK productivity – measured as economic output per hour worked – grew at an average annual rate of 2.2% in the ten-year period prior to 2008, before falling by an average of 1.2% during the global financial crisis of 2008 to 2009. In the following nine years (2010 to 2019), output per hour growth remained stagnant, averaging just 0.4%, a trend the ONS refers to as the ‘productivity puzzle’. Although output per hour has been resilient amid the pandemic – 0.4% growth was maintained in 2020 – the productivity problem remains a pressing one.
“We have a lot of catching up to do on productivity,” says Tony. “If you had told me before the pandemic there could be a massive uptake in innovation, digital adoption and efficiency on the part of the leaders of British businesses, I would have bitten your hand off … We have arguably seen ten years of digital adoption in ten months, and that should be a platform for a productivity boost.”
Culture and wellbeing
Another reset opportunity for the business landscape, says Tony, is around workplace culture and staff welfare. The pandemic has brought about a sea-change in workplace practices, whether that is in terms of the proliferation of video technology, or physical working patterns, plus an increased focus on wellbeing and mental health.
As highlighted in The Review’s July 2019 print edition, the City – and the UK and global financial services sector more widely – has been increasingly focusing on destigmatising mental health issues.
"This feels like a once-in-a-generation opportunity: I want to make sure we don’t miss it"
In many ways, the pandemic has acted as a catalyst to speed up the overall conversation. With staff away from the traditional supportive frameworks of the office, and fears over a blurring of work-life boundaries amid stay-at-home orders, the mental health and wellbeing of employees has been top of the agenda for many firms.
This has been a focus for business in general, which “had a ‘good crisis’,” says Tony, “in so much as it really put people first. It stood behind employees and their mental and physical wellbeing. I hope that’s the beginning of a new trend.”
Five years at the helmOver his five-year term as director-general, Tony is keen to ensure that business and government continue working together to foster the CBI’s national economic vision, at a critical juncture in the UK’s history.
To be playing a part in that – whether via high-level talks round the table with the government, or on the ground “getting out on trains up and down the country and seeing the frontline of business success”– is a “complete thrill” and “feels like a life’s work”.
He concludes: “The UK is not good at having national economic strategies that are co-founded by business and government. It takes exceptional circumstances to make the UK do that. It’s hard. Businesses and lawmakers are appropriately distracted by the short-run, about finishing the fight against Covid-19. But this feels like a once-in-a-generation opportunity: I want to make sure we don’t miss it.”
The full article was originally published in the June 2021 edition of The Review.
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