PROSPER MAGAZINE: ISSUE 01 | START-UP BUSINESS CLUB
CHAMPIONING BRITISH BUSINESS
DR ADAM MARSHALL IS DIRECTOR GENERAL OF THE BRITISH CHAMBERS OF COMMERCE, WHICH REPRESENTS THE INTERESTS OF OVER 75,000 BUSINESSES COVERING EVERY REGION, SIZE AND SECTOR, WHO COLLECTIVELY EMPLOY NEARLY SIX MILLION PEOPLE.
On a recent visit to the region, the British Chambers boss shared a platform with senior figures from the IoD, FSB, Made UK, CBI and the Local Enterprise Partnership at the Black Country Business Festival to explore how firms can respond to the challenges of Brexit and beyond.
Prosper spoke to Dr Marshall to discover more about his insights on all things business, his motivations, and how one of the UK’s leading business organisations is remaining relevant and tackling the issues which matter most to its members.
“I’m one of those people that needs something purposeful to get up for in the morning. I’ve worked in and around economic development and making places prosperous for twenty years and this is why I do what I do,” begins Dr Marshall who, ten years ago, became Director of Policy and External Affairs at the British Chambers of Commerce before becoming its Director General three years ago.
“For me, linking the top levels of government and the top levels of businesses is vital; our individual business communities are the beating heart of our chambers and working hard for them is what we are here for and it is what gets me excited,” and his background in lobbying and representation quickly becomes evident in how he supports the network of 53 chambers across the UK and the growing network of British Chambers around the world.
“I have always been passionate about business and place and these are the two things which bring the Chambers of Commerce together. All of our businesses want to thrive within their own communities and often be a local success as much as they want to be a global success. We get our strength through the relationship that chambers have locally with business communities, and the ability to take their knowledge and insight and bring it together all around the UK. Together, we’ve got an honest and robust story to tell – and we aren’t afraid to take that evidence and these stories to those making the decisions about the future of our country.”
Tackling the hard issues isn’t something which the British Chambers shies away from. One of the biggest challenges which have changed in nature in the last few years for Dr Marshall is how people work within a modern business environment. “Businesses are always on the hunt for great people – whether at entry-level, specific skills or top-level managers or leaders. Many say they’re still simply struggling to attract and retain the right people. I have never seen a crunch in the labour market as deep as it is right now, and this is true whether it is here in the Black Country or in any other area of the country.
“There are a lot of different factors at play. But businesses need to get a lot better at thinking about their staffing needs in five to ten years’ time as opposed to just filling a recruitment need right now.
“Also, some businesses still aren’t flexible or agile enough, and it is a job seekers’ market at present. For some industries, it is easier to be more responsive – professional services in particular – but for many people with caring responsibilities especially, it can often limit their ability to do a 9 to 5 role. If a business is more focused on outputs and outcomes rather than how many hours somebody spends in the office, then this is often ultimately beneficial for all parties. I know that this is something that the Black Country Chamber is doing especially well and hopefully its lead is having a positive influence on some of its members. For other industries, like manufacturing, retailing and logistics, we need to work with businesses to find ways to take best practice learning in this area and explore whether it will work for them - after all, a good potential worker is going to work for somebody which fits with their priorities.
“Furthermore, we as businesses need to keep on working with schools, colleges and universities – to develop talent and ensure our businesses have access to a healthy pipeline. We have to recognise that we need to help young people to develop transferable skills from an early age. I was surprised to be asked by my five-year-old daughter to help prepare for her first class presentation – learning these skills so early on would have been unheard of some years ago, and needs to be encouraged.
“Finally, businesses shouldn’t lose out on great people because of lifecycle events where, in particular; people coming back from parental leave might have lost some momentum, confidence or time – that is often a criminal loss of talent for businesses.”
As an advocate for place, Dr Marshall explains how the Black Country can function and compete on a global stage. “At a UK level, this region is seen as having a strong industrial heritage and is known for its role in the automotive sector. It has a fierce identity and, like others in the West Midlands, has sharp elbows and is jostling for its share of voice and funding amongst other regional competitors. When you go beyond this though, globally; people don’t see this level of granularity. They might – just - have an awareness of the powerbase that is the English West Midlands, or of the metropolitan area that is Birmingham, but not necessarily how the Black Country sits within and alongside these or is broken down into various municipal areas.
“Across the world, potential trading partners don’t always understand UK local identities the same way we do. I was recently on a visit to Scotland and spoke with businesses that had recently been over to China. These business owners were introducing themselves as being from this town or that city when all the potential Chinese clients wanted to know was whether these people from ‘Scotland’ could deliver the goods or work effectively with them. It was that scope and perspective which was important to them.
Similarly, for the Black Country, there must be a way of playing to the area’s strengths and heritage that forms part of a wider West Midlands narrative to attract global focus and investment. Businesses need to demonstrate that they are leading players within their sector in the UK, first and foremost, and as part of a strong and confident West Midlands second.
“The lessons for me are don’t be insular; don’t have such sharp elbows that you can’t work together, and think about your partners. The work being carried out by the chambers in the West Midlands is helping to bring all of these players together and demonstrate that we are much stronger and successful when we do cooperate and share a bigger vision.”
With a greater focus on collaboration, Dr Marshall concludes by summing up how the work of the local chamber and the British Chambers is still relevant and important and ultimately benefits businesses.
“There’s a thread running through chamber business communities all across the country – those things that need to be better so that business can drive local and national growth.
“People, as we’ve discussed, is absolutely the top issue. But there is also infrastructure and connectivity, supporting trade and helping businesses land opportunities in global markets, and putting the brakes on the upfront costs of doing business – which seem to keep going up and up.”
The Black Country Chamber has recently launched its business manifesto which is simultaneously an agenda for local growth and a powerful contribution to the national agenda.
“What businesses want here chimes at a national level, and is a big part of our national work with government and decision-makers.
“Sometimes, businesses need a powerful platform or mechanism to amplify these matters and get results. As the voice of business communities across the UK, chambers often put our head above the parapet both regionally and nationally and urge government and people of all political colours to take notice and take our communities’ needs seriously.
“Our levels of engagement have never been higher. We need to make sure that we are pushing the decision-makers to get on with things and give them the information and evidence needed to actually make those decisions.
“On Brexit, we are working continuously to ensure that businesses have the information and guidance they need to prepare for all scenarios. In addition, we are also reminding those at the heart of power that sometimes businesses don’t benefit from things like a lower corporation tax when business rates, apprenticeship levy, pension auto-enrolment and insurance premium taxes are on the increase.
“Chamber business communities are incredibly diverse and dynamic. We have a fantastic brand, but at times we are still fighting the perception that this is a group of middle-aged white men having dinner. The Black Country Chamber has seen a rapid period of modernisation and has a diverse and energetic team behind it working hard to give a voice to their local business community, raise the profile of members and connect them to do more business and try to make the region better and more prosperous for all.
“Ultimately, chambers are owned by the local business community. They faithfully represent this constituency without fear or favour – and in turn, we work to ensure that their point of view forms part of a national and global platform that delivers positive impact and change.”
DR ADAM MARSHALL | @BCCAdam