It's Wednesday, so it must be Liverpool. Richard Lambert is in his third week as the new director-general of the CBI, the country's biggest business lobby group, and is already on his second official visit, this time to the North-west of England. He travelled up by train from London the previous night for an informal dinner with 26 business and public sector leaders. As luck would have it, this is his 13th working day in charge, so perhaps it is no surprise the Virgin express was an hour late, forcing him to rush straight out of the taxi and into the dining room. As it happened it was the "gold-plating" of EU directives by Whitehall civil servants, rather than transport, that most exercised the 'Pool's finest. Mr Lambert, a former editor of the Financial Times and member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, was impressed by the level of the discussion. Now he tucks into his scrambled egg breakfast - "high in protein" - and grabs a fiche of faxed cuttings from today's newspapers before jumping into the waiting car.
He is picked up from his hotel next to the Pier Head in Liverpool's renovated dock area by Damian Waters, the CBI's North West regional director. Mr Waters has offered to act as chauffeur for the tough programme of visits to four companies between Liverpool and Manchester he has set up for the new DG. He says he chose Liverpool as the launch pad for the trip as it encapsulated a "microcosm" of the rejuvenation of the region: the city boasts more construction cranes than Dubai.
The car passes near the planned Grosvenor retail development, a £1bn shopping project being developed on land in the centre of Liverpool owned by the Duke of Westminster. Next is Edge Lane, one of the run-down arterial routes into Liverpool. It is currently awaiting the wrecker's ball to make way for a new dual carriageway entrance to the city. At the end is the gleaming white building that once housed the Littlewoods pools empire before the company's sale to the Barclay Brothers and which is due to be converted into city apartments.
The first stop is Pilkington's float glass plant in St Helens on Merseyside. Two decades ago the populace of St Helens marched in protest at a proposed takeover. A month ago the company was taken over by NSG, a smaller Japanese outfit. Long-serving employees were upset but no one marched.
Today Mr Lambert is more interested in the future and in what services and help the CBI can offer Pilkington. "It is important to be visible and to be quite noisy," he says before the meeting. The company is impressed to have the CBI's boss visit - Prince Andrew is coming for lunch so it's a busy day - and he is greeted by three executives.
It is soon clear that security and cost of energy is top of their agenda. Paul McKeon, a director of its worldwide building products division, says he is "nervous" after last winter saw spot market gas prices rise five or six-fold. For Pilkington, it would have been more expensive to stop the production line, so it managed to switch energy supplies. "We are energy intensive so the incidence of energy costs in the finished products is very high," he says. Mr Lambert says he will "rattle cages" in London and Brussels.
The DG probes away at the issues that bother the company, asking about their R&D spend, the difficulty in finding qualified staff and the paucity of science education in the UK. "Energy and skills and education are the themes we are going to be working very hard at," he tells them.
Back in the car, with the temperature heading towards a century-record of 36.3 deg C. Admittedly, in the "Pilks" glass furnace it was 1,060 deg C. Mr Lambert's predecessor Sir Digby Jones promised to visit all 14 regions and nations of the UK three time a year each. Mr Lambert is cautious about making a similar pledge. He has commissioned a report into business demands before next summer's Comprehensive Spending Review that is taking up considerable resources.
Next stop Innospec in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire. It is a company that fits very well with Mr Lambert's concerns. He says he has not come across a CBI member that was not concerned about climate change. Innospec, which is based in the UK but listed on Nasdaq, makes chemicals that boost fuel efficiency. "It is an exciting time," says Paul Jennings, its chief executive.
Ron Shone, vice-president for health and safety, updates the DG on the EU rules on classification, packaging and labelling of dangerous substances that are known as REACH. Asked whether he thinks it will be a level playing field across Europe, he says: "No, it will be like looking over the edge of the Eiger. In the UK, the regulators are a bit quick out of the blocks."
The car passes Didsbury, the suburb of Manchester where Mr Lambert was born and brought up after his parents moved north from London for work. He recalls he lived in a fairly run-down street and says that when he went back with one of his sons, it had not changed much. Later in the day, by chance, he comes across a T-shirt in a Manchester museum shop emblazoned with the logo "I'm from Didsbury" but sadly they don't have his size in stock.
Lunch is a quick sandwich at BASF, the giant German chemicals factory, which has its north European headquarters in a Pentagon-style building in Cheadle Hulme. Mr Lambert has already scanned the company's annual report and noticed it had achieved huge reductions in carbon emissions in the latest year.
Gordon Thomson, BASF's strategy and planning manager, picks up on Mr Lambert's enthusiasm for climate change as a business opportunity, pointing out it is possible to reduce the emissions of an average home by 90 per cent "if you use the right products".
Dr Thomson is as concerned about the energy situation as the other companies Mr Lambert has seen. "It is a concern for our sites that use a lot of energy but I am not sure what more can be done," he says. "I know there's a lot to be done by the CBI and that there's work being done to make it more clear what the situation will be [this winter]."
BASF raises an issue that has not cropped up at the other meetings - the growing number of attacks on research companies and their shareholders and bankers by animal rights activists. Mr Lambert, whose name is on one of the websites because of the Bank's connection with Huntingdon Life Sciences, is clear. "These are illegal activities that must be resisted at all costs," he said. "Pharma is one of the areas where we have world leaders and we would let that go at our peril."
The head of the CBI is still a big figure in the business world and Dr Thomson insists he has his picture taken with Mr Lambert for BASF's internal publicity.
Back in the car for the last leg of the journey to Manchester city centre. The last meeting has ended earlier than planned, which allows for a half-hour walk around the centre of the city. The tour includes a look at the Arndale shopping centre, where an IRA bomb exploded 10 years ago, injuring 200 people but kick-starting an urban renewal that has brought dramatic new skyscrapers and loft apartment developments.
The final meeting, with Co-operative Financial Services, is different from the all his other encounters on the trip. Mr Lambert spends a large part of the meeting explaining what the CBI does, what it can offer and why local businesses should take an active role.
As part of the Co-operative movement, CFS has a different take on business from the vast majority of CBI members. John Reizenstein, its chief financial officer, says: "We are members of the CBI but we are in a different sector from the capitalist world."
Mr Waters drops Mr Lambert off at Manchester Piccadilly station. Every other London train is cancelled and those that are running are restricted to 90mph. The train arrives at 8.45pm rather than the intended 7.30pm, forcing him to dash for a Tube or a cab to take him to a dinner party with friends in Pimlico.
The head of the CBI catches the news headlines, then gets some rest before another busy day - a trip to the Farnborough Air Show to meet and greet the leaders of the UK's aerospace industry.Reuse content