Carolyn Fairbairn Means Business

Carolyn Fairbairn Means Business

Jim Cassidy finds out what the head of the CBI thinks about the future

When the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) was born on Friday 30th July 1965, the UK was in the midst of an economic crisis with strikes, political instability, blackouts, factories and heavy industry grinding to a halt and workers sent home.

There was another problem: Europe!

The French had vetoed the UK’s application to join the EU and more and more people in the business and political communities felt we were being isolated and cast adrift.

The CBI was formed out of a merger of the Federation of British Industries, the British Employers' Confederation and the National Association of British Manufacturers.

In 1965 the very young Carolyn Fairbairn was growing up in Marlow, Bucks.

Fast forward 47 years and Carolyn Fairbairn is one of the most powerful women in the UK and the first female Director-General of the CBI.

For a woman who has smashed through the glass ceiling wherever she has gone, it seems appropriate that her open plan office above Cannon Street tube station is a homage to glass, with her view of the dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral and the London skyline like a stunning moving mosaic.


While there are more intimate break out offices, there is a real collegiate team spirit around the stunning 21st century contemporary environment.

The CBI speaks on behalf of 190,000 businesses of all sizes and sectors. Together they employ nearly 7 million people, about one third of the private sector-employed workforce. With 13 offices around the UK as well as representation in Brussels, Washington, Beijing and Delhi, the CBI communicates the voice of British business around the world.

It is an organisation that appreciates the importance of the growing self-employed and independent professional sector, and the work of IPSE.

But as showers sweep over the dome of St Paul’s there is a reminder that the 2017 outlook around Brexit remains unsettled, with stormy periods predicted throughout the year.

IPSE has taken a glass half full approach to the Brexit vote. Did the Director General of the CBI believe the UK’s self-employed and small businesses can weather the years of uncertainty?

Carolyn is considered with her reply:

“First and foremost, the CBI’s members, small, medium and large, want to make the best of Brexit. The UK economy was strong going into the EU Referendum. Following the vote, companies have shown remarkable resilience, by continuing to serve their customers and ultimately getting on with their business. There are, of course, real challenges, particularly for those who are self-employed, as they’ve no compliance teams to rely upon for guidance. No matter what size, for firms to grow in the present environment they need tariff and barrier-free access to the Single Market.”

On that issue, how important did Carolyn feel it is to retain access to the European single market while embracing global free trade, which has been a cornerstone of IPSE’s thinking post the Brexit vote?

“Britain is a trading nation, with a long history of commerce across the globe. That said, it’s a matter of fact that the EU is our largest trading partner, and our future trading relationships with other parts of the world will be reliant upon the outcome of the Article 50 negotiations. It’s absolutely critical for the UK to foster trading relationships worldwide, but the priority must be the EU first.

“Inevitably this will all take time, which is why, in the meantime we’re working with the UK government to enhance access to support for firms that wish to trade abroad. After all, exporting companies are more productive, which can have a positive knock-on regional effect too, which is essential if the benefits of economic growth are to be shared equally across all regions and nations of the UK.”

The former head of strategy at the BBC and ITV has made it plain in the past that she thinks red tape should only be used for wrapping presents. Did she think central government had done enough in recent years to cut the red tape tangle for the more flexible economy, streamline the tax system and ensure there is the right springboard for small businesses to advance?

“Cutting unnecessary red tape gives firms bursting with potential – especially small and medium sized ones – the space to grow and thrive. This is absolutely essential for the UK’s productivity and ensuring that all regions and nations of the UK are able to contribute to the UK’s prosperity. Ensuring an environment in which all businesses can thrive up and down the country is a prerequisite for success in creating and sustaining economic growth.”

The issue that still concerns IPSE members more than anything is IR35. It was interesting to see the CBI respond to the Government consultation on proposals to change how IR35 legislation works in the public sector. What are your main concerns with the proposals - are you worried they may be rolled out to the private sector in the future?

Challenging gender bias must begin in the classroom to change the perception of women in work

“The employment status framework for tax has been under some strain. Whilst we recognise concerns about the operation of IR35, to see real change in the effectiveness of employment status for tax we think a holistic approach is needed, which includes a strategic review of how the UK wants to tax flexible workers. This will deliver real results, rather than sticking plasters which impose complex administrative burdens and additional costs on businesses with no meaningful improvement in tax revenue.

“I think we need to avoid a scenario where tax policy pushes greater numbers of workers towards an employment model for tax purposes, even when the legal relationship and expectations on both parties is mutually agreed to be something different.”

Carolyn is on record questioning why so many business dinners are held, pointing out that they are "not very inclusive" for career women with families. Black tie dinners take place in large central London hotels most nights of the week, and are regarded as important networking events. She said of the issue: "I would rather have an early evening discussion panel, hold a proper debate, and then people can go home by 7.30pm."

I reminded her that more and more women in the UK are joining the ranks of the self-employed, but asked, are we as a society doing enough to help women start new careers?

“Being self-employed suits the working lives of many people. The opportunities for flexibility, entrepreneurialism and innovation make being self-employed a great way for many people to pursue their careers, including women.  

“Tapping into the widest talent pool is vital for businesses, as well as being essential to ensure that UK firms are able to compete successfully in the global economy.

“Businesses that attract women into their workforce and take steps to enable more women to progress have greater access to skills, better collective decision-making, and ultimately boost their business’ performance.

“Many firms are encouraging more women into business – some by establishing mentoring programmes to spot and develop top female staff. But challenging gender bias must begin in the classroom to change the perception of women in work.”

In the past, at a personal level you have shown that a work/life balance is important to you. Do you see this growth as an opportunity for women to achieve, or at least strive for, that better balance?

“Having a work/life balance makes good business sense. Colleagues that have down-time are able to spend time with friends and families, make time for their other commitments, are more motivated, more engaged and ultimately more productive at work.

“Adopting flexible working policies to achieve greater work/life balance greatly benefits all colleagues, as well as being of particular help to working parents, care givers and older and disabled workers.

“It’s fantastic that many businesses now offer flexible working policies. This means advertising flexibility at the point of hire, giving managers the tools to discuss flexible working with their teams and in some cases redesigning job roles to accommodate greater flexibility.”

In general, are things getting easier for women in business?

 “We have made great strides in increasing the number of women in business over the last 10 years, and I am encouraged by the great work many businesses are doing in this area to improve female representation over the long-term.

“But we still have a long way to go. We cannot just look at the glass ceiling, women in board positions, we also need to talk more about what I call the ‘sticky floors’ – the barriers which cause women to leave work or not achieve their full potential. This limits business’ access to top talent and skills, and ultimately reduces the number of female leaders of the future.

A question I often ask CEOs is ‘what do you value most about doing business in the UK’ – and they often answer ‘creativity and imagination’. And our sense of humour!

“Businesses are keen to do more to improve female representation in the executive pipeline, and this is reflected in the recent Hampton-Alexander review which has set a combined target for women to make up at least 1 in 3 positions on FTSE 100 executive committees and 1 in 3 direct reports to the board by 2020.”

You are now a year into your role as the first female head of the CBI; what have you achieved in those formative months and what is your 2020 vision for the CBI?

“I think this is far more about what the CBI and business has achieved. I think that business has been extraordinary since the June referendum, taking a calm and practical approach to the challenges and opportunities. They are seeking to make a success of Brexit and I am proud that the CBI has been supporting them. We have made clear the main principles that should underpin the negotiations – particularly the need for barrier free access to the single market and access to skills and talent – and communicated them clearly on behalf of our members to government.

We have also identified growing productivity across the regions and nations of the UK as a major priority for the next 5-10 years and we’ll be focussing on a government/business partnership in skills building and infrastructure as core areas for new ideas and collaboration.

“My vision for the CBI in 2020 is that we can look back and say we supported our members across all sectors and all parts of the country to deliver greater prosperity for British people, families and communities during a period of extraordinary change.”

IPSE has a strongly held view that we should do more at schools, colleges, and university level to prepare and encourage more young people to see starting their own business as an attractive career path. Is that something you would buy into?

“Absolutely. A strong instinct towards autonomy and fulfilment comes from running one’s own business. We should support this new generation of young people in every way we can – through careers and financial advice, innovative funding models, confidence building and connecting them to each other and to organisations like IPSE who can support them.”

Do we shout enough from the rooftops about the talent, drive and imagination we have here in the UK or is it a national trait to talk ourselves down?

“I think we do shout – at the CBI we certainly do! But there is always more that can be done. A question I often ask CEOs is ‘what do you value most about doing business in the UK’ – and they often answer ‘creativity and imagination’. And our sense of humour!”

Carolyn has extensive boardroom experience, including as non-executive director of Lloyds Banking Group, The Vitec Group, Capita plc, the Competition and Markets Authority, the UK Statistics Authority, and, from 2008-11, the Financial Services Authority. In the mid nineties she was a member of the Number 10 Policy Unit, where she advised on health and social services.

Everyone has heroes; who are the people who inspired you and indeed the people you think have inspired the UK business community?

“I have been inspired by my father, who spent his life in British business and taught me that it is a profound force for good, through the jobs it creates, the products it develops, the public services it funds.”

As a student Carolyn’s first job was at the check-out in Budgens food store. She now has a daily role checking out Britain’s industry for the CBI.

As you exit the CBI office there is a sign on the wall proclaiming: Let’s dream of positive change!

If anyone can turn those positive dreams into a reality you are left with the impression that Carolyn Fairbairn can.



Carolyn holds a first-class degree in Economics from Cambridge University, an MBA with distinction from INSEAD, and lives in Hampshire. She is an honorary fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

She began her career as an economist at the World Bank, before joining the Economist magazine as a business and financial journalist.

A management consultant with McKinsey & Company, Carolyn advised companies across the UK in a range of sectors specialising in digital transformation, and as a partner led its UK media practice.

Carolyn is married to Canadian Peter Chittick, and they have three children, two girls and a boy. Peter is a property developer, and together they live in Hampshire.


Words by Media Consultant Jim Cassidy