I Work For ...

The Budget used to be just a concept for me
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The Independent Online

Penny Kerr works for Digby Jones, Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry

Before I joined the CBI, I had no real idea what its function was. I didn't understand that it was non-profitmaking or that it lobbied Government on behalf of British business. The Budget used to be just a concept for me, but since I started working for Digby in January, all of us have been very wrapped up in the CBI's Budget proposals which have been submitted to the Chancellor. The proposals discuss taxes on businesses, which have gone up by £5bn a year during this parliament, and ask for reduction of the business tax take.

For me, the biggest surprise was to see how closely Digby has been working with the Chancellor and how many meetings they have had. For example, ministerial diary secretaries are good at gate-keeping and protective of their boss's time, so one rarely gets a meeting straight away. But in the run-up to the Budget Gordon Brown's office has been the exception.

By chance, Digby and I both started our jobs together, although I've been at the CBI since August 1995. The first thing Digby did was to give me a welcome speech. He said: "We are going to be here together five years and we have a lot to live up to. It's going to be hard work and things have to be done properly, but it's going to be fun, because if a job isn't fun it's not worth doing." He also said he would always defend me because we work together as a team. I appreciated him taking time to explain things I didn't understand rather than ignore me.

I had briefly stood in for his predecessor's secretary, and Adair Turner was a different character, not so outgoing. Former colleagues have told me: "You're so lucky to work for Digby, he's such fun." While I respect him as the director-general, I am glad he is not at all a staid or pretentious man. He is larger than life, flamboyant and entertaining as well as being down to earth.

When he recently got his hair cut the other day he came into the office going: "Hey, look at me, aren't I stunning?" He is already discussing our Christmas celebrations. I think he loves parties. I've never seen him in a bad mood, because he is constantly cheerful.

From the start, I loved my job, particularly when I call VIP's offices they immediately know who Digby is. I find it exciting. I had imagined secretaries of chief executives and ministers to be fierce and to ask: "But who are you?" Instead, we all joke about how impossible it is to find a space in our boss's diaries. Yet the thought I might double-book someone so in demand is still terrifying.

We have been extremely busy. Digby has been meeting Government ministers, members of the Cabinet and their opposition, including William Hague, as well as the Liberal Democrats. I'm now in the middle of post-budget arrangements, including setting up a meeting with John Prescott. Transport is one of Digby's policies and he is pushing for major investment in Britain's transport infrastructure to reduce the £15bn cost of congestion.

Digby has been touring the CBI regions and meeting executives such as Terry Leahy of Tesco and and Sir Stanley Kalms of Dixons, as well as hundreds of other members of the CBI. I organise his travel, booking train tickets or liaising with his chauffeur. His mode of transport depends on how soon he can reach his destination. It's often easier by car.

I begin work at eight-thirty, Digby arrives earlier, and at nine the phone starts ringing and doesn't stop until five. Most calls are from members wanting meetings or voicing their worries. The CBI is very member-focused and Digby gets a lot of fan e-mails which he responds to.

He is always eager, keen and very passionate about his job, concerned that he does his best for business. He is also a very meticulous man, careful not to sign documents before he's scrutinised every last word and concerned that issues are represented fairly, in the company and outside it. I suspect these are traits of a lawyer, Digby's first profession. He is concerned when we get calls from businesses worried about how the Budget and changes in taxes are going to affect them. We are very aware Budget time is important for businesses and we are keen to get their messages to Government.

I now understand why people get so involved in building a company, particularly when I look at the development of e-commerce and the excitement over the young internet companies. But I wouldn't like to run a business. I'm happy with the job I do. Working for Digby has also made me more aware of the political processes and realise one shouldn't see issues in black and white. Government doesn't just decide to do things on its own - there's a lot of working together with other people, even the Opposition.

None of my friends or family are businessmen, but they and my boyfriend are in awe of me having started as a junior secretary and now in a top-level job. I can see what people mean when they refer to the PA as the office wife. I do some domestic stuff for Digby connected with his London flat, which is like an extension of his office, but it's mostly paying bills, nothing as bad as collecting the dry cleaning. It's nice to be the first point of contact for Digby. It's a partnership.

Interview by Katie Sampson

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