By Doug Richard
Yesterday I attended and participated in an event hosted by UKTI, The Prime Minister, and Lord Mandelson. The purpose of the event was to communicate directly with the CEO’s of some of the world’s most important large companies who already have a presence in the UK or who are considering inward investment into the UK.
The message from the Government was unambiguous: The UK is still open for business and intends to remain so. The Government brought out all its heavy hitters and used them liberally; Gordon Brown held a private breakfast for 25 or so key figures (and a couple of not-so-key people like me) at Number 10; the PM opened the conference, Michael Porter the celebrity Harvard business Professor was the keynote, Lord Mandelson spoke more than once, took questions and networked; unusually enough for a Chancellor close to a budget, Allistair Darling also spoke. Mervyn Davies, the trade minister, compered the event. There were panels with a variety of heavyweights including Lionel Barber who chaired a feisty group with Richard Lambert the Director General of the CBI. My panel in the early afternoon was about the Future Consumer and I admit, given my rather vocal critique of the government’s policies regarding small business support, I thought it was interesting that I was asked.
What made the event impressive, far more than the obvious display of willingness by the government to put its most senior people forward, was the attendance record itself. The attendees individually are all major players and in sum made up a display of corporate gravitas that said something itself about the day. These people run crowded schedules. For some reason, it was important for them to come.
Why is that and what does it say about the UK?
Well, I think it is good news actually. This government put on a display of competence and re-assurance for key stakeholders in its well being. It did so in a way peculiar to the UK. The UK has a manner about it that is very different than other countries and cultures. It uses its great buildings and imperial facilities in a casual sort of way that takes the formality out but keeps the seriousness of purpose in place. Republics, like the US and France, tend in the opposite direction. We big things up and in the doing so make things seem a bit imperial. Thus breakfast at No.10, a day long event at the Saatchi Galleries finished by drinks at St.James’s Palace hosted by the Duke of York who cheerfully manned the floor was a seamless piece of marketing for the UK.
And it worked. I spoke with two CEO’s of key corporations who have decisions to make and each, when asked, was characteristically, straight forward. The first, a Canadian, said “I get what they were trying to communicate, and I’m sold.” The second, an Asian, said that he had come over specifically because they had invited him. He had come because it was the courteous thing to do but he would leave reminded why he had chosen the UK before and would likely do so again.
The Government was at work yesterday doing its job. It did it well. It provided re-assurance to the large end of the real business sector that the flow of inward capital is still good for the people whose capital it is.
For me though it is a bittersweet thought. That this group of people could accomplish so much, so artfully, on behalf of the nation and its enterprise, and yet has so few comparable successes in its cap for small business, new business and entrepreneurs in general.
I can only hope they apply the same new found skill and competence to their efforts to drive entreprenurialism as they do to tending the large corporate stakeholders, who are merely the few and large, along the continuum of businesses upon which the country’s well being depends.