Highlights from #BCCConf 2018

  • British Chambers of Commerce Annual Conference was held in London
  • Norfolk Chamber Board Member, Huw Sayer talks about his highlights of the BCC Annual Business Conference
  • Chi Onwurah MP was part of the panel discussing skills people & technology
  • Miriam Gonzalez spoke passionately about the impact of Brexit
  • Fleur Sexton was part of the panel talking about diversity in business
  • Adam Marshall, Director General of BCC, called for Brexit to not be allowed to distract the political parties from the business agenda

On Thursday 8 March, eight Norfolk Chamber members went to London for the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) conference. Business writer Huw Sayer was among them and sent in this report.

The BCC annual conference might not be as glamorous as the BAFTAs but it is a major event in the UK’s business calendar. Delegates from across the UK and international Chambers gather to listen to politicians and business leaders debating the hot topics facing industry. The focus this year was on diversity, international trade and the future of work.

These three topics were particularly appropriate as:

  1. The event coincided with International Women’s Day and came hard on the heels of numerous high profile sexual abuse scandals and pay equality disputes.
  2. The EU had just set out its latest negotiating position on Brexit, including a possible future trading relationship with the UK.
  3. The fourth industrial revolution, particularly the use of AI and robotics, seems to be accelerating exponentially and transforming the jobs market.

The less said about the four political set speeches the better. It’s understandable the BCC should invite politicians – but it’s a shame they each got 15 minutes to talk rather than just five. All we learnt was that some MPs seem to think repeating wishes loudly enough will make them come true. 

Don’t lose sight of what matters to business

The non-political speeches however were incredibly interesting and the panel discussions were excellent. The BCC’s director general, Dr Adam Marshall, made a particularly impassioned call for all parties not to allow Brexit to distract them from the critical issues facing the country. In particular, he stressed the urgent need for greater investment in core infrastructure (road, rail, broadband and mobile) to improve productivity and drive innovation.

Help people embrace change

The morning session, chaired by Anna Edwards from Bloomberg Europe, looked at the future of work. A key challenge is how we give people the digital skills to cope with new technology. Sarah Howard MBE, one time president of the Suffolk Chamber and now VP at the BCC, called for better careers advice in schools – and more work experience opportunities. She said that many businesses were keen to support this – but schools need to do a better job of planning their involvement.

Uncertainty is here to stay

The first session of the afternoon, chaired by Bronwen Maddox from the Institute of Government, looked at the future of trade. Clearly, Brexit was always going to dominate – and, judging by the audience reaction, it divides the business community as much as it does the nation. That said, the panel (from across the political spectrum) tended to be pragmatic in their analysis. Miriam González, from the law firm Dechert, was particularly impressive in her grasp of detail. She observed that most businesses she spoke to were being realistic and treating Brexit as a damage limitation exercise.  

Culture eats strategy – so get yours right

The theme of the final panel discussion, chaired by Sarah Gordon from the Financial Times, was diversity in business. It particularly looked at how to encourage more women to pursue STEM related careers. Samantha Payne, the co-founder of Open Bionics, made the important point that diversity is essential if you want to attract talented ‘millennials’.

In the main, young people want open and tolerant workplaces – and will judge potential employers as much by their company culture as the pay packet on offer. Funke Abimbola MBE, General Counsel at Roche UK’s pharmaceuticals division, stressed the need for greater transparency on pay and employment practices to create such a culture. While Fleur Sexton, MD of PET-Xi, emphasised the business value of diversity, not least in building more creative and productive teams.

A day well spent

Despite leaving home at 05:30 and not getting back until 20:30, this was a worthwhile trip. As well as listening to interesting people discuss important topics; I had the pleasure of meeting quite a few people from other Chambers (including a team from Suffolk). The four hours train travel wasn’t wasted either as it gave me the opportunity to get to know fellow Chamber board directors better.

As well as chatting about families, children and pets, we discussed some of the key challenges facing Norfolk businesses. Naturally, one of these was the state of the railways – notably the bottleneck created by the single track over Trowse Bridge. That is a topic for another day but your board is determined to unlock this long-term brake on the local economy.

Catch up on social media

If you want to see what other people thought about the BCC conference, just search for the hashtag #BCCConf on Twitter. Don’t forget to follow @NorfolkChamber for all your local business news

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