The Power of Data Podcast
Episode 33: Why Data Needs to be Local and Global for Business
Guest: Adam Marshall, the Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce
Interviewer: Sam Tidswell-Norrish, International CMO, Dun & Bradstreet
Hi, welcome back. You're joined by me, Sam from Dun and Bradstreet. And today we have a critical guest at a time like this, we have Adam Marshall, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce. Welcome, Adam.
Thanks for having me here today, Sam.
So Adam, you're actually not far from where I am right now. I'm in southwest London, and you're in southwest London. And all this separates us is a storm, really, and unfortunately, a pandemic. But as we get used to this virtual environment, it's really changing everything that businesses are doing, and you're at the epicenter of that. So I'm really looking forward to talking today about how business is changing, what you're hearing from your community and your business ecosystem. And really, I guess, to do some forecasting. Where's the world going? I want to hear it from Adam’s mouth. But let's start out with a little bit about you. You've been at the BCC for a decade now, you're in the top row guiding it through this fascinating time. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about your career?
I think the first thing to say is that I am a recovering academic. I was one of those people who in their early 20s spent quite a bit of time doing advanced degrees thinking their way through life in the universe. But realized that for me, people in business were what made the difference. So I moved away from the study of what was going on around the world, and got stuck in to the doing of it. I've really loved all of that work ever since. I've spent a lot of time focusing on places and how you make places better; how you make them more successful; how you help their businesses grow, etc. And in the last 11 or so years, I've been with the British Chambers of Commerce. It is a truly amazing organization, because there are very few places where you can work where you're trying to help businesses be more successful, and at the same time, also help businesses contributes to their communities. And that's incredibly rewarding and it's something that particularly at a time like this really comes to the fore.
And perhaps you can tell us a little bit more about the British Chambers of Commerce? You and I have spoken previously about the size and scale of it - it's a 160-year-old business. It’s an incredible organization I should say. And we're big admirers of people that can weather all those storms through those 160 years, we are 179 years in July. Tell us a little bit about the structure of the business, the scale the services, the value proposition?
I think what makes the Chamber of Commerce brand unique is that every Chamber wherever you are in the UK is owned by and run for its local business community. The very first one in these islands was founded in Jersey, and that was almost 300 years ago. So we've been around for an extremely long time, and we've seen dips and troughs, we've seen highs and peaks in in the UK economy and in trade. And we've been through all of those different changes. Right now, we've got 53 chambers. They cover every town, city and county in the United Kingdom. But we've also got a network of 60 British Chambers of Commerce all around the world. So British business Communities are established in places as far afield as say Mexico, South Africa, Australia, South Korea - we've got them in our network as well. And that gives us a lot of knowledge about British business and trade, not just here at home, but all around the world. And again, it's run by and for people and people are at its heart. And that's what makes it such a rewarding place to contribute to.
One of my favorite parts of the UK Government is the Department of International Trade. A really incredible global network of people and into Chambers, I guess, as well designed to help facilitate British business around the world and catalyze trade. How do you guys not, compare to them, but I guess… how do you collaborate with them? Are there synergies and your global 60 global chapters? How do you engage with them and how do they help the British landscape?
British Chambers of Commerce or private sector organizations are run by and for business, but they're also the best partners for government and whether that's here in the UK or around the world, we're there and we're able to work with government to try to help businesses be more successful. We do that with the Department for International Trade, both in markets around the world and many chambers here in the UK also help companies take their first steps into international trade to by helping companies consider their export strategies and plans, what sort of data they might need in order to understand potential markets and potential customers and helping to get out there too.
You know, just this morning, I was talking to our British Chambers of Commerce in Southeast Asia, and we were talking about how after Brexit, we get more British companies involved in countries as exciting as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, etc. So there are all sorts of opportunities there and the opportunity is there to collaborate between business and government. Because particularly as we come out of the Coronavirus crisis, business and government are going to have to work closely together both to reestablish trade links and to help UK companies find those new opportunities around the world. And my hope is that as we get past the tragic and difficult period that we are in right now that we can start turning our attention to how we work together to be successful in future.
Together is the key word there. One of the things we've been talking about a lot, both internally and with our clients at Dun and Bradstreet is the fact that the world has been pushed into a digital paradigm that effectively accelerated the digital environment that we're in by perhaps 15-20 years, I think, given that generations that perhaps wouldn't use digital devices and apps are now far more literate than they were just weeks ago. But it also gives us huge opportunity to work more closely together. And the world is global. And the business environment is global. And it's going to get smaller, faster and more connected than ever before. So how do you see the business landscape evolving? Maybe five years after this downtime?
Well, I think you're right, that change has definitely been accelerated. You know, I look online at my Chamber of Commerce network, and I think to myself, well, down in Dorset, there's a digital networking event going on right now with 100 business people getting together and actually sometimes being closer via digital platform than they may have been in person. Same thing happening literally all over the UK and between our business communities too. So strangely, over the last six weeks, I think businesses have realized that they don't need to work in the same way and they can often be better connected via digital means than they were face to face. Now, nothing will ever take the place of being able to work with a business partner up close in certain circumstances. But so much of what we do, I think will change as we come out of this, as we realize that we can do so much more flexibly and at a lower cost to our businesses as well, which is going to help the bottom line, but it's also going to help releasing time and energy to explore new growth avenues as well.
I completely agree. The BCC looks after the interests of tens of thousands of businesses, some big, some small. They're all over the UK and they employ almost 6 million people across the UK, which is a significant portion of our employment figures. Be it positive or negative, every business is going to be affected by Coronavirus. Obviously, there are going to be some that unfortunately we're going to see the demise of many businesses and perhaps the high street is going to be impacted the most which really does make me feel quite sad. How are you that the BCC using data to measure the situation and advise businesses during this time? I mean, I know you have your business impact analysis and surveys, what are they telling us?
So we run the Coronavirus Business Impacts Tracker for example, where we've got a real time sample every week of 700 or so businesses who come back to us and tell us exactly what the world looks like at the frontline. Many people are saying they’re orders both domestically and internationally are very much on and they're not sure where their future revenues are going to come from. Lots of concerns about clarity on how the economy can be restarted and when they can get back to something approaching a sense of normalcy. So we hear it all, both through our grassroots work in our local business communities and through data and surveys as well. I don't think we've ever seen this situation where our data has gone so negative so quickly, such a sharp and immediate downturn. Even during the 2008-9 recession, it wasn't this sharp. We weren't measuring these things back at the time of the Great Depression, but you know, it's similar in scale and scope to what models do exist of what was going on then. So the big concern now we're looking at is okay, is this going to be a V shaped a U shaped an L shaped or even a W shaped recovery and what does the exit path look like? And that gives us a chance to then go to the UK government and say, ‘look, you need to support our business community so that they then can power that recovery.’ And all of our data lets us go to government in real-time and say to them, here's what you need to do to help. And they've been reacting over and over again to what we find and changing some of their support schemes to make sure that they help the biggest number of businesses possible. I don't think I can give you a better example of the impact that we've had Sam, beyond saying that, you know, all of the changes that happen to government support schemes, whether they're loans or the furlough scheme, or whatever else have something to do with the data we're putting in.
At D&B, we've been doing a lot of work with the UK and US governments on assessing economic impact and trying to help understand the business universe in much more granular detail, but it's not something that any of the governments expected to do, and it's certainly not an easy thing to wrap your head around under such pressure and such tight timeframes. You talked about a W recovery and I would be remiss talking to an expert and someone on the front lines like yourself, to not bring up Brexit. I know it feels like a lifetime ago. But we are due to leave Europe at the end of the year and you guys were very instrumental at looking at the potential impacts of Brexit on both UK and international businesses. I wonder what your view is in a Corona defined world of how that's going to impact us? And I mean, does it disappear? Can we really go through Brexit amidst an economic downturn?
It's funny, you're right. After the intensity of the last six weeks or so it does feel like a lifetime ago and a world away. But of course, it was the focus of quite a lot of our activity over the past three or four years. We stayed neutral in the referendum debate because of course, there were differences of opinion in business communities all across the UK. We asked lots of questions of both sides. And ever since the result, we've also been asking lots of questions of the UK Government. Because for business, a lot of this is about practicalities: it's about whether you can continue trading successfully, and without massive increase in costs. And that approaches put us in good stead because what we've been able to do is to pinpoint the areas where there are real concerns and real difficulties, like Customs and Border checks and non-tariff barriers - the sorts of things that could make British products uncompetitive or consumer products here more expensive. We’ve looked extensively at the people aspects of all of this because, of course, businesses have had a number of European nationals working at every level of their firms for a number of years, and quick changes to our immigration regime could impact the supply of labour to quite a lot of firms. So we know quite a bit about what's going on. We know what some of the key issues are, and even through the Coronavirus, we are still talking to UK Government extensively about what we need to know in order to cope with change on December the 31st. The government said politically we're leaving on the 31st of December, unless and until that were to change, our responsibility is to tell businesses look this is what's coming. And to tell government, here's the information that those businesses need in order to be able to navigate that as smoothly as possible.
I guess the one thing we know that's absolutely certain is everyone's going to wake up on the first of January with a hangover.
They may have one from all of 2020 as a whole, regardless of the subject matter.
Yeah. Quite right. Look, one of the areas that we both share a huge passion for is purely data. And if you think about the business landscape, really, it's 99% of businesses in the UK are SMEs and supporting them is critical to both your organization and ours. And data as we reach that digital singularity point is going to become something that even the smallest of companies need to think about. And not just in terms of sales and marketing, and their distribution through social media channels. But it's going to be everything - it's going to be about how they manage risk, it's going to be about their scores. It's going to be about all sorts of metrics that perhaps don't yet exist, because we haven't really harnessed the right alternate data. How do you think SMEs couldn't really be supportive on this journey to get up to speed on data and to use it to take insightful action?
There's so many aspects to that question. Some I mean, I think the first is there's a bit of a psychological barrier when people say ‘data analytics insights’ and use terms like that which sound to them like something that they'd hear on Silicon Roundabout an Old Street, but not in, you know, an industrial estate in St Helens or wherever else it might be. So there's the question in my mind about how do you get more SMEs accustomed to using data and trained so that they can do so as part of their everyday working lives? That affects quite a number. For others, it's a question of process improvement rather than a question of basic understanding. It's just how they make data work better for them in terms of their decision-making processes. And then of course, there's the question of those SME businesses around the UK, really dynamic ones who are very much in the business of creating, manipulating and using data. Whether it's the data we provide, whether it's the data that Dun and Bradstreet brings together or others, we have a lot of the businesses leading the world as it were, in terms of turning that data into something exciting, and be different and new with it. So there's a huge amount of opportunity there. But I think the vast majority of our SMEs probably fall in the former two categories, i.e., digital novices, or those who can probably do better with data than do in the sort of Wizkid category.
Yeah, one of the things that we pride ourselves at D&B is trying to help people understand the true power of data. The title of this podcast. So for those listening, if people want to learn more about it, please do reach out to Dun and Bradstreet and you can do so also through the BCC because we want to make sure that people are getting the right advice. It's so easy to invest a lot of time and energy and to not do it properly and to end up tying yourself up longer term really. And one of the things I'd love to know a little bit more about Adam, is you sit right at the center of this action, and you're tracking all sorts of economic and commercial activity. In fact, earlier, we were talking about tracking shipments around the world from the UK. Can you tell us a little bit about that data that you're looking at?
Yeah, Chambers of Commerce work with businesses all across the UK, around 30,000 exporters all across the UK, and every year help them get hundreds of thousands of exports through customs around the world by providing them with the documentation that they need. And this is often digital documentation these days to clear customs effectively and efficiently. And that trades billions and billions of pounds every year. So Chambers you know see quite a lot of data about where trade is going, what people are shipping, etc. And that's quite rich data as well and it lets us also understand whether we see any change in flows between the UK and some of our key markets around the world. In addition to that we run the biggest business survey in the UK, our Quarterly Economic Survey. And very often because of that data, which is extremely rich as well, you know, we're able to see changes a quarter or two before they show up in the national statistics. So there is quite a lot of data at our fingertips. But some of the best data that Chambers of Commerce hold is at the local level too. So really good insight and understanding of what's going on in local economies. Because these days are businesses local, and we can't forget the data isn't just at a global level.
So true – one of the real benefits we have as a firm is having people on the ground, in large teams, and data scientists and experts in all regions, from the US to Europe over in Asia as well. And our worldwide network of partners is another really unique aspect because you can't be a true one-stop data shop without having a global outlook. We spoke earlier about the BCC’s age - you guys are 160 years old. It's truly incredible. And you've been through a lot as an organization. I can imagine structurally, your people, your objectives, everything shifts with the times as we're finding out more now than ever before. What does the next hundred and sixty years look like? How do you think your objectives are going to evolve?
I like to summarize it using four words: voice, trade, membership and place. So every Chamber of Commerce gives a voice to its local business community. It helps companies trade effectively, both locally, nationally and internationally. It brings businesses together through membership. It's really important to remember that businesses that get together and work together are more successful. And then finally, all of those businesses when they do get together, all want to make the place where they do business succeed because they know their own business success is tied up with whether their town their city, their county, is doing well or not. So I think that purpose which has seen us through the last hundred and sixty years will still be just as strong. Over the hundred and sixty. I guess what will change will be the way we pursue it. And whether there's a big digital transformation in what we do and how we support companies to complement the work we do face to face. Whether there's a strong partnership role that we can enter into between business and government and be that bridge between business and government for the long term, that helps our companies succeed and to export. And other things that I think will change is our relationship with other companies, whether they're big data and insights companies, such as yourselves or others, because as the world globalizes around data, we too are going to have to be using our insights and pooling our insights together in order to succeed. So I think it's an exciting time ahead for us, just as it's an exciting time ahead for the global economy as we seek to rebuild from one of the most challenging periods any of us are faced.
It's so true. One of the reasons I joined Dun and Bradstreet really was because, well, it's the world's largest steward of commercial data on its own. Incredibly storied history. But it's also because of the macro tailwinds that were the most exciting point in time. I think that inflation is going to be a fascinating opportunity for the business intelligence space. Before this call, you and I had spoken about industries that we think are going to be under the cosh. What industries would you predict to be really about to flourish? What are the really exciting areas of the UK economy that you're excited to see growth?
I think there's so many things we do here in the UK where we've got real possibility for the future. The huge concentration, for example, of creative industries that I think are suffering hugely right now, but will take off and thrive in the months and years to come. Innovation around FinTech, for example, would be another one where I think the UK is already world leading and will only grow stronger and more important over a period ahead. But also, some of our sort of more traditional industries also, I think are going to see immense growth over this period. You know, if supply chains are going to get shorter, and we need to see more resilient supply chains over the coming years as a result of the COVID crisis. I think we see a renaissance in some parts in our manufacturing supply chains, and that could be simple stuff. And it could be complex stuff as well. All of that will be hugely important.
I'm in total agreement with the creative industries. You know, one of the things I often think about is how the UK has really punched above its weight for so long. We're the world's fifth or perhaps sixth largest economy, and we're really an island of just 65 odd million people. And we've had some of the world's most incredible inventions and Imagineers. We've had Ada Lovelace through to Tim Berners Lee, it's really an incredible environment. A question I always finish on – and it’s really one because I've been blessed in my career to have wonderful mentors, but learning and knowledge transfer is essential. You know, there's many ways to do it. Warren Buffett suggests reading 500 pages a day. Not all of us have the brain of Warren Buffett and can get through 500 pages a day. But speaking to people, spending time with people, learning from other people's greatness, in some senses from their mistakes as well, is something that everyone can gain from. First part of the question is, what does the BCC do in terms of facilitating knowledge transfer mentorship? And the second part is, who are some of your key influences been?
I think in terms of what we do corporately, you know, being a business membership organization, being a business network, means that we see generation after generation of people who come together to have that mentor/mentee relationship. And we see it in local Chambers all across the country. And sometimes it's the younger, earlier stages is mentoring the older - but perhaps stuck in a rut. So you can see every type and every variety of mentoring and mutual support and benefits to all parties in these conversations. People's horizons may be expanded in trying to help others and I think that they do. I have a huge sense of self-worth and value out of having those collaborations and conversations. So it's something that's at the very heart of what Chambers of Commerce do. I suppose for me, I've been a really lucky person. I mean, I've had a lot of people that I would consider mentors. Some have been those who went before the traditional mentor, the senior individual who you learned something from in conversation over a period of time, but some of us have been peer mentors. And I think that's a really underrated part of all of this: people who are doing relatively similar jobs at similar levels to you at similar points in their career, where you can really build a great mutual support network between you and learn so much from those peers and colleagues. And that's been absolutely essential for me in terms of progressing myself both as a manager and a leader.
I guess if there's one final thing that is often on my mind, it's the concept of Cathedral thinking. All of us are here, I think, to build something or to contribute to the building of something that's going to be around and be finished long. After we make our mark and make our contribution, I think if we spent a little bit more time on Cathedral thinking in the business world, rather than some of the short termism that we may have seen in recent years, I think we'd have stronger communities and a stronger economy to go with it. So my hope is, as we come out of the current crisis, we find ourselves in that we can go back to that and how long term view a long term outlook that has strong benefit for business community and country.
Such a great point and I haven't actually heard that terminology, Cathedral thinking. I've been part of the founding of a group called the 20:40 Group. A group of young people about 100 people (I’m not one of the young ones), a group of largely very, very talented, ambitious young people across all sorts of different disciplines, across public and private sectors, who all have the same belief that short termism is a really negative aspect of business. And that really compound interest will be what separates the UK from other potentially from other economies. So bringing people talented people together, pointing them in the right direction around common causes, and ultimately building trust is a really important way to, like you said contribute towards something that's for the greater good and that's going to be around long after we're gone. So I guess a final question, you know, as I think about how the 20:40 Group is being built, how you harnessing the next generation of talent?
In so many ways Sam, I mean, in local chambers around the country, actually, it's younger businesspeople that are providing the impetus for doing things differently and growing local networks and taking them off in new directions. And when you see in different towns and cities, new clusters or new industries arising, it's because of those young people who come together and make it happen. In my own business in the BCC, my team is full of predominantly young, energetic and committed people who want to make a difference to business and to the world. And I think what we all need to do is harness that characteristic of the up and coming generation - which is that people want to do well, but they also want to do good. And bringing those two things together is what I think will ultimately get us toward the kind of long-term approach that you were talking about with the 20:40 Group, and which I think our economy and our country need.
And there's no better way to end doing well and doing good. And it's something we talk about a lot at Dun and Bradstreet, the power of data really does let us do well, but also help us to good, help us understand where we should spend our energies, and how to make better decisions with better insights. Adam, thank you. I couldn't be more grateful for the time you spent for us today. It's a busy time for you, and it's been super to talk. Thank you for being here.
Thank you so much, Sam.