The new British Chamber of Commerce Director General, Shevaun Haviland talks to Platinum.
By Maarten Hoffmann
After studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University, Shevaun Haviland started her career in consultancy in London and New York before joining the Walt Disney Company. She was based first in London and then Paris, where she oversaw the opening of the second theme park at Disneyland Paris.
Following on from this, she started her own company and built Independents United over a period of eight years. Under her leadership, the company leapt to the forefront of the digital revolution, building social media strategies for global businesses. This took her into the world of early EdTech development for a charitable foundation and then later a venture capital (VC) backed start up called Dot Native.
She was then head-hunted by Government and spent five years in the Cabinet Office and No.10 managing business partnerships. During this time, she built and ran the Inclusive Economy Partnership, which builds productive alliances between businesses, civil society and government to create a more inclusive society.
After an intense interview process, she was revealed as the new Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce in March 2021 and took up her post in late April the same year.
Helping to steer the BCC and the Chamber Network through the challenges of the Covid pandemic and the reality of our new trading relationship with Europe, has certainly made my first year interesting.
My original hope of getting out to visit as many Chambers across the UK as soon as possible had to become more of a virtual tour as restrictions on our ability to travel waxed and waned. Nevertheless, I was still able to make face-to-face visits to chambers including Greater Birmingham, London, Suffolk, Business West, North East England, Essex, and Glasgow, during COP 26.
In all my interactions, both online and in person, I have been incredibly impressed by the knowledge, skill and dedication of Chamber staff to do all they can to make their local businesses a success.
This is one of the things that I believe makes our network unique amongst business representative organisations - our grassroots connection to the firms we represent. The depth and breadth of that knowledge at the local level means we can effectively reflect back to governments, policy-makers and politicians real-time insight that makes us invaluable.
When you then add to this the 76 international affiliates we have across the world, then we truly are a unique, special and global network.
This recognition of our expertise means that over the past year we have been successful in lobbying government for changes to the business rates system, an additional £150m for the Regional Angels investment programme and an extension to the £1 million annual investment allowance. And it meant that when Plan B was introduced shortly before Christmas, we were successful in calling for additional grant funding to support the hardest hit businesses.
As all Covid restrictions are now starting to be lifted, we find ourselves focusing on the financial year ahead and the key priorities for the Chamber Network.
First and foremost must be action to tackle the mounting concern over the ‘cost of doing business’ crisis. Chambers and their members from across the country have been telling us of surging cost pressures.
Unless this is addressed, we will continue to see higher inflation and a worsening cost-of-living crisis being faced by people across the country. The cumulative effect of increasing raw material costs, soaring energy bills, rising interest rates and an impending National Insurance hike will all weigh down on firms’ ability to invest, recruit and grow.
Coming on the back of the damage done to cashflow from almost two years of restrictions, huge swathes of our business communities are struggling just to keep their heads above water. The BCC’s most recent Quarterly Economic Survey found that almost 1 in 4 firms (23%) reported a decrease in their cashflow at the end of 2021.
Recovery from the pandemic and spiralling costs and inflation are not the only challenges that the UK economy faces. Chronic skills shortages and weak investment levels are creating a significant drag on the economic potential and prosperity of our regions and nations. Addressing these critical areas will be vital to both ‘levelling up’ communities around the UK and for the transition to Net Zero.
That’s why the BCC will soon be launching Renew, a follow-on from our Restart and Rebuild blueprints published in May 2020 and June 2021 respectively. Renew sets out the key steps we believe the Government must take to address these current pressing issues and create a better businesses environment that will power the recovery from Covid.
Our proposals include steps to ease the impact of surging costs, establishing a contingency framework for the long-term management of the pandemic, boosting business investment and addressing the chronic skills shortage. We’ve listened to the Chamber network on all of these issues, and we believe if the government takes our advice, then the economy will truly have a brighter future where businesses can thrive.
Chambers of Commerce were built on international trade, and this is another area which we believe can make a significant contribution to the UK’s long-term prosperity. In January we launched our Trade Manifesto with the aim of doubling the number of UK businesses which export.
The UK is bursting with amazing companies offering goods and services that are high quality, sustainable and well designed. There are hundreds of overseas markets which are crying out for what we can offer.
Yet only 10% of UK businesses are currently involved in exporting when our research shows that firms trading overseas are more productive, innovative and resilient.
So, it’s vital we now recruit a new generation of exporters to help take our overseas trade to the next level. We are standing at a moment where we can seize the opportunity to be in the vanguard of a world-wide revolution in new technology, digital services and Net Zero innovations.
Accredited Chambers of Commerce have all the tools necessary to equip these new recruits and allow them to trade with confidence. Our Chamber Customs service can also provide training, advice and brokerage to help goods clear UK borders with as little fuss as possible.
Our research shows that overseas trade fell off a cliff in early 2020; just 8% of UK exporters saw any increase in the second quarter of that year. Almost two years later and the figures are still way below where they need to be, with only around a quarter reporting improvement.
We are using our entire Global Business Network and will do everything we can to help firms explore the amazing possibilities that are out there. But more also needs to be done by government to support UK companies that have had to battle with rocketing costs, disrupted supplies and reams of new paperwork in Europe. If we all work together to take action, then we can revitalise our export growth and help power the UK’s economic recovery.
Throughout all of this it is also vital that we do not lose sight of the UK’s commitment to be Net Zero by 2050. This is a golden thread that must run through all that we do.
If we are to achieve that aim then businesses must be put at the heart of the strategy. They will be the ones that create and produce the technology to allow us all to live greener lives and will be vital in driving the consumer behaviour required to reach Net Zero.
It will also be business that provides one of the biggest dents in CO2 emissions by making the transition themselves.
Everyone understands the imperative, but our research also shows that for many firms, especially SMEs which make up around 99% of all UK businesses, reaching Net Zero is not a top priority when they are still struggling to keep their heads above water following the pandemic. There is a real danger that smaller businesses will get left behind unless politicians and business leaders come together to galvanise action.
We know that many larger firms are reaching out to help smaller businesses within their supply chains to adapt and adjust. The BCC has developed a Net Zero hub, in partnership with O2, to provide businesses with a one-stop shop on everything they need to know about setting and achieving Net Zero targets. Many chambers are also working with their members to help them develop their plans to become carbon neutral.
But with so many business sectors making up the economy, the pathway to Net Zero will not be the same in each one – farmers, builders and accountants will all need to take different routes.
What we are still lacking from Government is much of the detail about how, in practical terms, the UK will do this. Clarity and certainty will drive confidence to invest. For example, what support will be in place to reduce or spread some of the costs associated with making the transition?
We need to know how businesses will be supported to switch from industrial scale heating systems; when electric vehicle charging points will become commonplace; how our freight systems will be decarbonised, and our energy sources diversified and stabilised; and more.
We must keep up the pressure to get the answers and policy decisions that we need. Once we have that full picture it will then become much easier for firms to make their plans with confidence and work out how they can finance them. But as a network we must also look to ourselves and consider what we can do to help our membership make this shift.
Finally, I want to give a final word of praise to the Chamber Network for the fantastic support we are giving to International Women’s Day (IWD).
There are currently 15.5 million women in the UK in work, that’s 71.8% - a higher proportion than in the US, Europe or Japan. The gender employment gap is now down to 6.3 percentage points, the lowest it has ever been.
At the BCC, we are also working hard to become more representative. Research in 2021 showed just under 40% of our 123 strong chamber and business group network had female CEOs or Director Generals.
But there remains much to be done. This year’s IWD theme is #breakthebias and there are still areas we need to focus to help the young girls and women of today to aim higher.
Latest research from the FTSE Women Leaders Review reveals just 8% of FTSE 100 CEOs are women and only 13.7% of executive directorships. That’s why the BCC is hosting a special panel event on IWD which will be led by BCC Chair Sarah Howard.
It will involve high-profile business leaders discussing what business can do to encourage more women into senior roles in organisations. And I’ll be in conversation with our President Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith. The BCC will also be publicising activities across the Network to make International Women’s Day a truly chamber-wide event, and make sure we keep the momentum going throughout the rest of the year.
But it’s been clear to me from day one, from all of my face-to-face and online conversations with people across our amazing network, that supporting equality, diversity and opportunity is something we are all behind.