Chairman & CEO Dinner 2018 with Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI Director General

Monday 15th January may be the most depressing day of the year, but the Walpole Chairman & CEO Dinner held on this inauspicious date at the Rosewood London – a byword for contemporary luxury – was anything but.

Walpole CEO Helen Brocklebank welcomed over 130 leaders from Britain’s best-known luxury brands to Scarfes Bar for a Chapel Down English sparkling wine reception, followed by a three-course dinner in the Mirror Room. Helen’s maiden speech of 2018 set out Walpole’s priorities for the year and galvanised members into taking action on topics which inevitably included Brexit and its corresponding trade talks, as well as our partnerships with Careers & Enterprise and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), a UK business organisation, which speaks for 190,000 businesses, made up of around 1,500 direct and 188,500 indirect members.

The CEO Dinner is Walpole’s scene setter for the year, and the opportunity to bring Britain’s best luxury businesses together to talk about the year ahead, alongside a very special guest speaker. This year, we were delighted to be joined by Carolyn Fairbairn, Director General of the CBI, who discussed the outlook and the mission for British business for 2018, a year that – according to Carolyn – will be the most important in a generation.

Carolyn’s speech focused on two priorities: the urgent need to get clarity on our Brexit deal this year; and the decisions needed to get our skills and talent base right.

Brexit of course continues to be the top concern for many UK firms; the uncertainty is affecting growth and investment across the whole economy. We need urgent progress to build on the success of December’s agreement with the EU, to get a ‘status quo transition’ sorted by the end of March, and to move on to trade talks as soon as possible. Smooth trade is crucial for firms right across the luxury and creative sectors. Consider a fashion designer who manufactures in the UK but sources material from all over the EU. Without a good deal, tariffs will be added to every single piece of material they import. And let’s say you want to scale up your business and need the best talent. Without a good deal, your talent pool will be greatly reduced. That’s why we need a migration system that allows the UK to continue to harness the best creative talent in the world. Equally important is that people from the UK can easily work overseas: Creative Directors of some of the world’s biggest luxury brands – Chloé, Louis Vuitton Menswear and Loewe – are British. They are some of our best talents whose success has been spurred on by being able to travel and work across the fashion capitals of Europe. We need to ensure people and businesses don’t lose these opportunities 438 days from now.

Although we urgently need to sort out Brexit, to remain at the top of our game we also need to invest in our domestic talent – particularly in light of likely changes to our immigration model. A recent survey of CBI members found that 79% see skills shortages across the country, which applies to the creative sector as much as any other. We need to close the skills gap by making students more aware of creative careers earlier on in their education, and encouraging more interactions with business at an earlier age. We believe that every young person should have at least four interactions with business before they leave school. The impact would be enormous with studies showing this kind of contact reduces the chance ending up unemployed by 85%. When it comes to training, the luxury sector is one of the best; the Harrods Retail Academy, for example, gives young people the best of the best in training for the retail sector. The apprenticeship scheme at Sunseeker gets bigger every year. And to halt the decline in students taking creative subjects, the V&A has stepped up with a campaign to get more children taking design and technology GCSEs. But the luxury and creative sectors need more support and the best way to make this happen are partnerships between business throughout the country and government. I am optimistic we can do it – one of the silver linings of Brexit is that we have a focus on the most important issues, some of them overdue.

A huge thank you to Carolyn Fairbairn, the CBIRosewood London, Chapel Down, Rachel Vosper, Charbonnel & Walker, FLOWERBX and Hildon. For more information on Walpole’s programme of events, please contact Olivia Lowdell.