Life & Culture

Blue skies ahead for business boss

Is the UK economy going down the drain? Tony Danker director general of the CBI tells Jennifer Lipman we should be optimistic about our prospects


When Tony Danker was 21, he frequently found himself in boardrooms pitching to some of the country’s top business brains. As chair of the Union of Jewish Students — commanding a team of ten, meeting prime ministers and senior politicians — it was an early taste of management, and an experience that has stood him in good stead.

“I still remember it with complete astonishment,” he recalls when we speak, as he is about to head off to catch a flight to Belfast, where his parents still live. Being granted that level of responsibility so young was “an amazing leadership experience. I think student leadership, peer leadership and those kind of experiences are transformative. I’m a big believer in leadership programmes.”

Now 49, Danker is once again at the helm of an organisation bringing together members spread nationwide; in this case the business group the CBI.

He took over as director general in November, amid lockdown and furious speculation about whether there would be a Brexit deal. Coming in midway through the biggest shockwave to the economy in a decade might have put some people off, but Danker relished the challenge, beginning the interview process just as the virus hit.

“That was part of the motivation,” he explains. “It was clear we had a real national crisis which was first and foremost a health crisis but was going to migrate to be an economic crisis. I just felt the importance of the role and its potential value just grew and grew.”

He’s spent a lot of time on Zoom since meeting members, but says it has been invigorating — especially once a Brexit deal was agreed, bringing “huge relief to everybody”. Now, the CBI is looking ahead to the post-pandemic, post-Brexit rebuild, and what that means for business. Danker acknowledges there will be losers as well as winners in the near term, but overall is Tiggerish about what lies ahead. The CBI anticipates that the economy will be back to pre-Covid levels of activity by the end of the year, buoyed by surging demand from households and businesses. But he cautions this is dependent on Government decisions around business support. “It would just be incredibly regrettable if at the last hurdle we were to pull away the bridge of support rather than completing their transition to the other side,” he says. And, “if there are new constraints that are put in place that needs to be matched with specific levels of support”.

He knows that not every business will feel cheerful. “I did a roundtable with a bunch of small businesses the other week, I gave them the very optimistic riff and one of them said ‘Tony, it’s very hard to see the blue skies from the bottom of a hole’. I get that, if you’re in the hospitality sector, if you’re in events, aviation, all the optimism in the world is kind of irrelevant. You’re trying to climb out of a hole, and that’s going to happen step by step.”

But his hope is that “for businesses that have made it this far they’re going to be back on the road to recovery. But it’s not guaranteed, we need to be attentive to it.”

With Brexit resolved and the worst of the pandemic seemingly behind us, he sees now as a pivotal turning point — perhaps even a chance to rewrite the UK’s economic map.

“You see those decades-long graphs of economic performance. It’s very obvious what’s happened to our graph in the last year and a half, and it’s probably predictable what’s going to happen in the next six months, the question is what’s going to happen in the next ten years,” he says. “I believe this is an inflection point and I think the economy genuinely can get back to a growth trajectory that we haven’t had since the financial crisis.”

He thinks we will see productivity rise, thanks to businesses having done “ten years’ worth of digital work in a year” and partly because there is significant pent-up demand, both from the pandemic but also as a product of pre-Brexit stasis. “There’s a lot of ambition in the economy which will make for a good 18 months, the bigger question is will it make for a good next ten years.”

His aspiration is that Britain takes up the mantle to become a global leader on decarbonisation, something he suggests businesses are increasingly on board with. Britain, he says, “is actually really good” at renewable energy, and it’s a win on multiple fronts. “It’s good for the planet, but not only is it good for your economy in the direct growth, job growth and firm growth you get, but there’s a real chance for Britain to become world famous for its green capabilities, for its decarbonisation products and services, and to become a large exporter and a centre like we are in financial services. That’s huge, and it’s not a southeast story, it’s a nationwide story including all the devolved nations.”

Like many business leaders, he is concerned about the skills gap. Father of two teenage sons, he is fully aware young people have had a rough ride of late.

“I worry about the short-term impacts, on kids’ education and wellbeing and mental health,” he says. “We’re going to be spending the next year unwinding all that, whether or not it’s catch-up education, or restoring good mental health and good social capital.”

But he is loath to place the burden of filling the skills gap on secondary school teachers already dealing with pandemic catch-up.

“Secondary school education is really important because 50 per cent of young people will go straight into work, but the major skill reforms we need are about the role of vocational education, matching the outputs of FE colleges and universities to new skills requirements in the workplace.” Lifelong learning, he says, is key, because nine out of ten workers will need to reskill by 2030.

What he does want is for young people to be supported to acquirebroader skills around readiness to work, problem solving, teamwork, creativity and interpersonal relationships. “Those are the skills probably most in demand from employers, and we haven’t really got round to working out how we do this. Obviously, core knowledge is a prerequisite for success, but I also think one of the other things to think about is to get those skills back for people.”

He wonders whether young people will have gained or lost resilience during the fraught pandemic period. But having grown up in Belfast during the Troubles, he is perhaps more optimistic than some.

“What were the long-term effects on me of growing up around extreme violence? I’m not sure I know. It was just my childhood, I often wonder what will our kids think about the pandemic ten years from now. I really don’t have a clue.”

His older son is about to head off to university, bringing back memories of Danker’s own student days in Manchester. He’s not planning to encourage his son into student politics, but it’s brought into sharp focus the importance of institutions like UJS and the Jewish Chaplaincy. “I’ve come full circle… the sheer importance of those organisations is very vivid in my mind.”

After leaving UJS, he spent two years working for the late Lord Sacks, who he still fondly refers to as “the Chief”, before stints at McKinsey and as a special adviser at the Treasury during the Gordon Brown years.

Danker’s time with Lord Sacks left a lasting impression, particularly of what constitutes strong leadership and communication. “He was a huge inspiration to me and my Jewish identity,” he says. “He was world-class at understanding how to have a national conversation. His advocacy and communication skills and his ability to bring his ideals and belief into the public discourse was second to none. That’s the biggest thing I learnt from him, about national discourse,” he says. “That has definitely stuck with me.”

Jewish identity remains important to Danker, who is a member of Barnet United Synagogue, although he laments that he is “far too busy to do all the things that I’d like to do”. But as he says, “everybody doesn’t have to be a macher, sometimes it’s fine to be a good Jewish parent and a good member of your local shul, so I’m trying to be those things.”

And he’s also trying to be a cheerleader for business, when that is sorely needed. Having been an adviser to the government during the financial crisis, ultimately he sees now as a moment of opportunity.

We’d have needed a long-term economic strategy post-Brexit anyway, he says, but “you take together Brexit, the pandemic, COP26 and climate change, and all of a sudden there really is a need for a strategy for Britain to thrive in the world.”

But ever the optimist, he thinks the will for this is there in the way it wasn’t in 2008. “I know because I was at the Treasury at the time. There wasn’t really consensus about what needed to be done.” And make no mistake, we must seize the opportunity. “I don’t think we’ll get another one of these moments in my lifetime.”

A crucial time to be at the helm of the CBI, then. But first on his agenda; Friday night dinner, the first reunion with his parents in more than a year. A brief moment of calm in what will unquestionably be a busy year ahead.

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