CBI goes back to basics with new boss Tony Danker after years of Brexit wrangling

By | June 12, 2020

Tony Danker took a gamble when he left his established media industry career to head up a business ‘movement’ back in 2017.

Britain has plenty of industry groups and campaigns, so the appeal of launching a new one is not immediately obvious.

It is particularly tough to make a name lobbying for the amorphous concept of ‘productivity’.

But less than three years into his tenure as chief executive of Be the Business, he has been picked to head the Confederation of British Industry, the most high-profile corporate lobby group in the country.

Sir Charlie Mayfield, the former chairman of John Lewis who was the driving force behind the establishment of Be the Business, says Danker has the right qualities to lead.

“What drives Tony in a very meaningful way is his belief in the importance of business in society and the positive contribution businesses can make within society and to the economy,” says Sir Charlie, who hired Danker for his work on productivity at Harvard.

“He is passionate about taking practical steps which encourage and enable businesses to do more of that.”

He sees that as crucial to rebuild the nation from the pandemic. 

“In the first phase of the crisis it has been critical care workers very much on the front line. In the second phase, and the enduring phase, it is going to be business leaders,” he says.

“They are the people who create jobs, who determine the nature of those jobs and the opportunities within them. It is the decisions those people take which will ultimately determine the competitiveness and prosperity of the country.”

Carolyn Fairbairn, outgoing director general of the CBI

Sir Richard Lambert, a former director general of the CBI and a member of Be the Business’s advisory panel, found Danker to be remarkably inspirational.

“He has got enormous energy and enthusiasm, and he can stir up an audience on productivity which isn’t always the most interesting subject,” he says.

“He has energy and charm and integrity. I am a big fan. He is the sort of person who inspires confidence, which his members will be needing.”

Other business figures are impressed at the way Danker, a veteran of consultancy McKinsey and the Treasury during Labour’s years in power, pushed productivity on to the Government’s agenda. Be the Business has used pilot programmes to find the best ways to boost the productivity of small and medium-sized businesses, taking this to ministers as evidence they can change the fortunes of often-overlooked industries, making a real difference to the nation’s prosperity.

Brexit protest – ANDY RAIN/EPA

An ability to influence without irritating will be vital, particularly given the track record of conflict between the CBI and Government on Brexit.

The business group’s campaign to remain in the EU and subsequent sulk put the organisation at odds with the Conservatives, alienating influential figures in the party which is traditionally most closely aligned with businesses.

The coronavirus has bridged that gulf. Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, the outgoing head of the CBI, has been in almost constant contact with ministers to consult on support packages for businesses and the steps required to reopen the economy.

Danker himself has previously played down Brexit. “Productivity down for yet another quarter. Time to realise Brexit is NOT the UK’s biggest economic challenge,” he wrote in a tweet last year.

Leaving the EU could even be an opportunity, he said.

“Brexit is a great catalyst for people to think about their business,” he told MPs on the Treasury Select Committee.

Sir Charlie thinks British business has moved into a new era.

“What we have always said is that if we can move thousands of businesses up an inch [in productivity], the value of doing that is worth over £100bn to the UK economy,” he says.

“Those numbers are vastly greater than the consequences people band around about some of the scenarios we might see [on Brexit].”

That will be music to the Government’s ears, and perhaps to CBI members too after years of political wrangling.

Sir Richard had one other warning for Danker: “I hope he likes chicken, and crème brûlée. I put on over a stone doing the job. He has a lot of dinners ahead of him.”