When I met Lord Davies of Abersoch at the Department of Business last week to talk about his plans to get more women to the top of UK companies, I asked what had pleased him most about his six-month inquiry.
The ex-Standard Chartered banker paused, replying quietly: "Actually, I've been humbled by this experience. I've worked at the most senior levels in banking – here in the UK and Asia, but this has made me realise just how difficult it is for women to succeed in business." It was a refreshing answer and, even though Davies hasn't taken what many would see as the truly radical approach by opting for quotas, you get the distinct message that he's so dogged about reform that he won't let go until he sees it happening.
That's also why Davies is keeping his steering committee alive, so he can review, every six months, how British firms and the head-hunter community are responding to his target of 30 per cent female directors on boards over the next few years. He's also asked the enfant terrible of women's affairs, the redoubtable Professor Susan Vinnicombe of the Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders, to change the date of her annual survey of the Female FTSE Board Report to March – to mark the anniversary of his report – so he can measure more precisely whether UK firms are meeting his targets or not.
So will his plans work? Davies reckons the biggest problem women face is breaking the selection process, which has become fossilised by the largely old-boy's network – the vicious circle of chairman, head-hunters and investors who've been happy to go with the status quo. By persuading firms to "comply or explain" through the Financial Reporting Council, he's forcing them to act. By getting the Association of British Insurers to support his moves, he's made sure the investors are on side. And by getting the CBI, which is already behind him, to say it wants to see more change, he is hoping industrialists will do more than just pay lip service to the notion.
Search firms will be asked to adopt a "best-practice code", which means they must start looking deeper into the gene pool to get their talent – in charities, NGOs, the public sector and so forth. But to really improve the quality and number of candidates, I do think he should have listened more to Vinnicombe, who wants to see all non-executive directorships advertised. Such transparency could only help.
It's the women at the executive level who need big help. While 13 per cent – or 116 – of directors on FTSE-100 boards are women, only 5 per cent of these are on the executive rung – and the rest are NEDs. This is simply appalling, and reflects the myopic view that company bosses take when choosing women to promote – Cranfield estimates there are 2,551 senior executives from which to draw.
I would have preferred Davies to go for a quota – even 25 per cent – but I can see why he's trying to get the ball rolling without government intervention. In effect, he's gone for the name-and-shame game. If companies don't play the game, they know what's coming – and the EU might get there before he does. As Davies says, if British business wants to stay competitive, firms need all the talent they can find.
And, as to talent, it would be wasted if Davies were to head off into the sunset. He should be put in charge of looking at the miserable childcare provisions in this country, one of the real reasons why so many women give up work. We can't let him go quite yet.
Check it out: Burberry catwalk sales now on iPad
Yet again, Burberry is a check ahead. Its catwalk show for London Fashion Week at the Royal Park of Kensington Gardens tomorrow will be streamed across the Piccadilly Circus Coca-Cola screen and will be beamed to 150 countries online. This year, Burberry customers can go one step further – they can "buy direct from the runway" from its virtual store on their iPads. Fashion is big business for London this week – last year about £30m was spent by designers and shops on shows while buyers spent £100m or so on placing orders, and it's hoped that a similar amount will be spent again to boost the UK clothing industry. The direct value of the fashion industry to the economy is £21bn, making it Britain's 15th biggest sector. Around £2bn is from designer brands – such as Burberry. But this is dwarfed by imports – we spend about £46bn a year on clothing. If we need any excuse to go shopping, buying British is a good one.
Time for Morrisons' Philips to bring his common sense southward
He's only been in the hot seat for a year, but Morrisons boss, Dalton Philips, is making some interesting moves. First, the chief executive of Britain's fourth-biggest supermarkets group bought Kiddicare, the online children's goods retailer. Although Kiddicare has been around for nearly 30 years, the Peterborough-based business really took off only three years ago, since when sales have soared by 75 per cent, with most of its 40,000 customers a month coming to it on the internet. Sales last year were £37m and Morrisons has snapped it up for just under twice that. Bradford-based Morrisons is the only big supermarkets group without a substantial online presence and Philips has made no secret of the fact that he's going to use Kiddicare's advanced technical platform to expand the chain's own ecommerce.
After plunging online, Philips then took to the nets. He revealed last week that he's to spend another £1m to send 1,000 Morrisons managers to the nearby Yorkshire County Cricket Club to teach them new skills. Philips, a marathon runner not a cricketer, wants staff to play the game, as team-building is good for leadership. Many of Morrisons' 143,000 staff started on the shop floor and worked their way up the company ladder, and he wants not only to hang on to this tradition but to "supercharge" it. He's even hired Pat Duffy, the professor of sports coaching at Leeds Metropolitan University, to help train them.
It was also Morrisons which recently announced that it's funding 20 undergraduates at Bradford's School of Management under a new "learn and earn" scheme to help the young with their tuition fees and to give them real work experience.
When Philips moved to Morrisons from Canada's biggest retailer, Loblaw, I wondered who on earth he was. Now I can't wait for him to expand Morrisons even more in the south – we're in dire need of some of his Irish common sense.