For years company bosses have feared “doing a Ratner” when it comes to speaking their minds and have chosen empty platitudes instead. Now a group of Britain’s biggest business names have come together to urge their boardroom peers to abandon dull corporate-speak in the national interest.
Senior figures including Juergen Maier, the former chief executive of Siemens UK, and Sir Charlie Mayfield, the former chairman of John Lewis, have launched an organisation to encourage business leaders to speak out about the UK’s biggest economic challenges.
Aimed at mentoring the next generation of business leaders so that their voices are heard, the group has developed an app-based platform called vocL to bring together executives who believe companies should engage more in society.
Maier, known for outspoken Brexit interventions on the BBC’s Question Time, said business leaders had to stop being scared of speaking in public and recognise that failure to talk openly about politics and economics harms public debate and leaves the field open to their critics.
“It’s the fear of making a mistake, and saying something that is very brand impactful. We’ve seen them before: Ratner was probably one of the worst case studies. So you go in with that fear,” he said.
“But I cannot see a way in which we can solve the challenges we’ve got without a much, much stronger relationship between business and society and public sector. And I think business has to take responsibility and leadership for some of those issues.”
The jeweller Gerald Ratner has gone down in British business folklore for describing his company’s own products as “crap” in a speech in 1991, turning him into a textbook example of why company chiefs should choose their words carefully.
Maier said the British economy faced challenges in the recovery from Covid-19 and in tackling global heating that meant firms needed to speak more openly with their customers and the public.
vocL is aimed at connecting the most senior figures in British business with aspiring company leaders. Planned to have 150 mentees enrolled this year, the group of City grandees also includes Sir Michael Rake, the former chairman of BT, Paul Drechsler, the former president of the CBI, and James Timpson, the chief executive of the Timpson shoe repair chain.
Mayfield said: “Businesses play a key role in society. I hope the dialogues we stimulate will contribute to that by encouraging freer and more diverse exchanges.”