'We've got to show that business is a force for good'

For the first time in decades, industry and ministers are on the same side, says the new CBI president

The last time Britain was in an economic crisis as deep and as messy as this, the boss of the Confederation of British Industry, Sir Terence Beckett, challenged Baroness Thatcher to a "bare-knuckle fight" over her policies.

Within hours Sir Terence and the CBI's president, Lord Pennock, were hauled into No 10 and given the full handbag treatment.

How times have changed. I can't imagine Sir Roger Carr, the man who sold Cadbury to the Americans, and who takes over as president of the CBI tomorrow, either threatening David Cameron or being dressed down by him. Sir Roger says he doesn't need to pack a punch because for the first time in decades, business and government are on the same side.

"Oddly enough, the interests of business, the coalition and society are aligned for the first time in a long time. Everybody understands now that if we are to survive as a country we have only one option – growth, growth and more growth," he says.

The new CBI president remembers the outburst by the pugnacious Sir Terence in 1980. He was then in his early thirties, working for Ley's, an engineering group supplying parts for the bombed-out motor industry: "Horrible, horrible moment. But its different today – the Government knows that wealth creation is fundamental to our survival and that it must clear the decks to achieve growth. It's made a good start – the Chancellor has got the tax climate right for companies but he must now – sooner rather than later – cut the top rate of personal tax, which is a deterrent to people who want to build businesses."

Apart from the Chancellor's latest levy on oil and gas companies, that is. Wearing his hat as chairman of Centrica, the British Gas supplier to millions of UK customers, he is furious with George Osborne's decision at the last Budget to introduce an 80 per cent tax on oil and gas explorers. "That's one issue where we are not aligned," he says, with a big grin.

Nor is he crying wolf. "This tax has had unintended consequences – the Government may have thought the oil companies which have seen prices of $120 a barrel could afford it, but not gas companies like Centrica. Now it won't be worth our while to develop many of the small fields so we will be stopping £700m of new investment, many jobs will be lost and we'll move our skill sets to other projects.

"The Budget decision also makes the issue of self-sufficiency in energy even worse. About half of all our gas comes from Russia, Scandinavia and Qatar – a decade ago we were self-sufficient."

As you might imagine, Sir Roger is using all the lobbying skills he has to hand to persuade the Business Department and the Treasury to amend the tax for gas explorers such as Centrica. "I'm hopeful they will see sense," he says.

But is he too optimistic about business and government being on the same macro-economicwave-length? Even the last director-general, Sir Richard Lambert – the first person called by Mr Osborne for his advice after the election was won – criticised the Government for its lack of a "strategy for growth". Indeed, there are those who say the CBI has lost its voice; that government isn't listening to the big-hitters as the real engines of growth for new jobs are small businesses.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, what the CBI said made the TV bulletins as it battled it out with the TUC over industrial relations.

Today the power has shifted – the coalition has set up its own business councils, and groups such as the EEF, the manufacturers association, and the Federation of Small Businesses have stolen a march. The coalition has also followed Labour's lead by hiring celebrities – such as shopping "queen" Mary Portas, to sort out the high street, or the Topshop tycoon Sir Philip Green to cut waste in Whitehall. When minister did make a serious appointment, bringing in Lord Young to cut red tape for small business, he was sacked as soon as he spoke the truth, when he remarked that never had so many people "had it so good."

Sir Roger laughs at the idea that the CBI has lost its tongue: "Quite the contrary. If anything, the CBI's voice has become more intensified than ever, more powerful. The quality of the research being carried out by the CBI into the big issues of the day – like on manufacturing, on training and apprenticeships – is second to none. It's the rest of the world that is catching up with the CBI." And the CBI still represents 240,000 businesses and a third of the private sector workforce.

However, he accepts that big business does need to make itself attractive again to the public: "We've got to show in a much better way that business is a force for good; demonstrate that companies invest in research, that they pay fair taxes and are good for society."

We're talking at Centrica's HQ just off Piccadilly: his desk is as minimalist as the office; board papers are bound in files and neatly laid out, there are no family photographs, no bits and pieces which might give clues to where he came from or how he likes to relax. Sir Roger is dressed quietly; tailored navy suit, gold cufflinks and plain tie. His manner is quiet yet firm, using his hands rather than his voice to accentuate his words. But I know there's a jolly side; the last time we met was at a party where, with glass of wine in hand and his wife, Stephanie, by his side, he was charming and good company.

But today he is uncomfortable talking about himself, and has to be persuaded to say how he started out his climb to the top of the UK establishment. "Not a good role model," he says, which is strange, considering what he has achieved. What I learn later is that his father died while he was at school.

Eventually, he does explain. It's a fascinating tale and one which probably couldn't happen today: while studying for A-levels at Nottingham High School, he took an aptitude test which was being offered by IBM, then looking for bright young things to train as programmers. He scored highly – won't say how high – and was offered a job. "I had planned to be a solicitor, but the salary IBM was offering was twice what I would have earned after three years qualifying as a lawyer.

"Remember, this was the Sixties, a very different place to today and just at the beginning of computing. It was exciting, the same sort of buzz as we have with the internet today."

IBM was installing the first generation of computers at Boots's head office in Nottingham, and it's there he learnt to write Cobalt while studying business studies at the local polytechnic. Then along came Honeywell, a rival supplier that offered him a new job. Soon he was running a big division, and in charge of hundreds of people: he was just 26. "It was a high-growth, high-octane place to be – Honeywell was a good school."

He learnt well and luck intervened. While working for Ley's he came up with a plan to restructure the business just as Sir Nigel Rudd and Brian McGowan, starting out with their small car-dealership, Williams Holdings, arrived with a bid approach. They bought Ley's – and the trio went on to build Williams into one of the most go-go industrial conglomerates of the 1980s and 1990s, turning sales of £5m into revenues of £2bn.

Known as the "hit squad", they sped around the country visiting their take-over targets in matching black BMWs. The trio took over high-profile but poor-performing brands such as Cuprinol, Polycell, Kidde and Chubb, turned them around and sold them for a big profit; not dissimilar to the private equity corporate raiders of today.

"It was an exciting time and we did very well," says Sir Roger. "So did shareholders – we turned 10p invested in the company into £10."

After Williams itself was broken up in the mid-1990s, Sir Roger went on to chair Chubb, then Thames Water (which was also sold to Germany's RWE) and pub and restaurant operator Mitchells & Butlers, and now he's also on the court of the Bank of England. His admirers say he's a tough pair of hands, someone who never "wings it", but who works hard, takes what he does very seriously and is the least pompous man they know. But his detractors say there's a ruthless streak, one eye always on the main chance and that he should have reacted quicker to the threat of takeover at Cadbury.

Sir Roger says the bid would have been impossible to stop. He became chairman of Cadbury a year before the £10bn bid by the US cheese-maker Kraft, which sparked such a national uproar and outrage across the political spectrum. The experience left him bruised, but not repentant and he still sees nothing wrong in UK companies being allowed to be taken over by foreign firms. He is adamant that any form of protectionism is unhealthy for the economy and points out that the UK owns more businesses overseas than foreigners own here.

"The public saw Cadbury as an Enid Blyton fantasy," he says. "Here was a 200-year-old, family-owned chocolate-maker rooted in its community. The truth couldn't have been more different – it had lost its way for some time, sold more chewing gum than chocolate, and sold about 80 per cent of its goods around the world, and had built itself up by acquisitions. It was the board's duty – and mine – to get the maximum value for shareholders."

However, Sir Roger has been behind reforms to the Takeover Code, to force bidders to honour commitments made during a bid, and making it tougher for predators to "bear-hug" their prey. What Centrica, which some might argue is vital to energy security? What would happen if Russia's Gazprom, Spain's Iberdrola or Qatar were to bid, as market gossip suggests? What then? No comment, he says: "You know I can't say anything about market speculation."

So, what will he bring to the CBI? "Added value," he says. With John Cridland, the director-general who he calls "exceptional", he's working on a two-year plan for the presidency that will keep up the pressure on government to speed up growth. Beckett-style threats may not be needed but the lobbying group will continue to push for more help for manufacturers, particularly for exporters.

It will also try to ensure there's the appropriate help and funding for small and medium enterprises – the SMEs – or the "gazelles", as Cridland calls the new generation of entrepreneurs.

And then there are women. Sir Roger is against introducing legal quotas for women on boards, but he's been a vocal champion for more senior female directors in many other ways. A founding chairman of the City's new 30% Club, with Sir Win Bischoff, chairman of Lloyds, he practises what he preaches: the Centrica board has three female non-executives, and he insists the company improves conditions for working women.

"It's vital that companies help women build their careers to get to the executive level – and build up a big pool of talent from which companies can draw. But companies must move quickly to meet the new recommended quotas – 25 per cent by 2015 –otherwise there will be 'litigation' – no, sorry, I mean legislation," he smiles.

Then he says something you don't hear from many men in the C suite: "Women shouldn't have to face a fork in the road – deciding either on a career or staying at home; that attitude stops women from going the distance to the highest level." I suspect he's been encouraged by his only daughter, Caroline – a Cambridge classics graduate, senior counsel and head of talent management at Goldman Sachs – whom he describes as a really "good role model". Like father like daughter, Caroline has also founded a professional woman's group, Network for Knowledge. Who knows, maybe she'll persuade him to speak louder when he gets to the CBI tomorrow.

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