At the time of posting this blog the UK was just about to go to the voting booth in perhaps the hardest fought general election of modern times. After the fun and games we have seen with the polls since 2016 I am personally disinclined to place too much faith in the bookies’ predictions, but what I do know is that whichever flavour of government is going to be formed for the next few years (or I suppose potentially months or weeks) we can expect another period of considerable uncertainty in terms of both policy and implementation. In short, we do not know what laws will be on our statute books, how those laws will be interpreted, or for how long they will endure. Whether we have an ostensibly stable government leading us into uncertain trade negotiations with a potentially small majority, or some sort of government of national (dis)unity, when the fog of electoral campaign misinformation finally starts to clear, those of us in business will simply have to adapt, pick up the pieces and make the best of it.
Reflecting on the apparent futility of electoral politics at times, it seems to me that in all walks of life we are being encouraged more and more often to “stand up and be counted”, and rightly so. However, it also seems to me that we need to have some purpose behind what we are standing up for, and to ensure that when we do make the effort to stand up we do not risk standing alone, another unheard voice shouting into the wind.
For my part, I recently stood down (but only because I came to the end of my term of office) as Chair of the Association of Business Recovery Professionals (known as “R3”), for the Southern and Thames Valley region. R3 is the trade association for the UK’s insolvency, restructuring, advisory, and turnaround professionals, representing insolvency practitioners, lawyers, turnaround and restructuring experts, students, and others in the profession. I was in post for 3 years, and before that I served 4 years as Vice-Chair so I have seen its work frequently and at close quarters. Whilst in post with R3 I also had the privilege of taking a representative seat on the Professional Services Forum for Hampshire Chamber of Commerce, giving me an insight into the work of regional chambers generally, and of course as a solicitor these past 20 years, I am also a member of the Law Society, which exists to drive excellence in the legal profession and to safeguard the rule of law.
What R3, the Chambers of Commerce and the Law Society all share in common is that they support sections of British business which play vital roles in the UK economy, working to promote employment, productivity, disrupting fraud and helping people get back on their feet following adversity, thus ensuring so far as possible that the UK remains a leading international centre in which people can have the confidence to trade fairly. They provide this support primarily in the following 3 ways:
So, why should we in business bother with all this? Isn’t it enough just to be members of the bodies we have to belong to and pop along to the occasional dinner or awards ceremony? What’s in it for us to get more involved? Well, obviously I can only speak to my own experience but for what it is worth, here are my top 3, evidence-based, reasons to engage with your trade body:
In true politician style, let us start with the most outwardly magnanimous reason. Pretty much every trade body with which businesses can engage will state some lofty purpose, which is of course intended to make us feel good about the organisation, so that we actively want to belong to it. Before I got involved in the day to day work of R3 (i.e. before my e-mail inbox exploded with exchanges about forthcoming press releases, legislation campaigns, meetings with stakeholders, conferences and seminars to be organised, sponsors to encourage. etc) I used to think that these sort of stated aims were nice things to aim for, but really only so much hot air. Then, when I got into the detail and began to see the results, I realised that trade associations genuinely can make a positive difference which spreads out well beyond the industry’s heartlands. I can point to dozens of examples where, by producing information for and/or sitting down with key stakeholders in government, parliamentary committees and/or the civil service, R3 has influenced law and policy for the better, removing unnecessary obstacles to economic progress and job creation and improving Treasury revenues which can then be invested in other sectors and services. More often than not this work, by its very nature, goes unseen because the worst ideas of those in power or implementing that power are snuffed out at source or at committee level, but sometimes trade associations have to lead campaigns, such as R3’s successful rally against a Companies House ‘right to be forgotten’ initiative which would have operated as a charter for rogue directors to conceal their past misdeeds. It feels good to get involved in such action, albeit of course a welcome side effect when these campaigns come off is that we hopefully create the right environment within which our industries can thrive and our practitioners can enjoy the right legal tools to their job. By the same token, trade associations run training and conferences which promote best practice, which in turn can ensure that those tools are used skilfully to maximise their overall effectiveness.
Competition and innovation within business are a given, and two key drivers for success. However, unchecked competition and overly processed delivery of services can lead to unwelcome commoditisation and/or poor practice which jeopardises the profitability and/or reputation of the whole industry. We need trade associations, alongside regulators, to protect public confidence in our sectors. If our industries are well regarded in the round, and their value observed and well understood, there will be room for more operators, greater productivity and employment prospects. It is, or at least it can be, a virtuous circle. However, trade associations cannot work in a vacuum; they need all of their members to contribute to this effort, not just by paying their membership dues, but by actively engaging in the steps they take to educate and promote. Member surveys can be a pain, but the research they help to generate can really back up essential messages. Similarly, we need to get together around a table (real or virtual) to share ideas which can benefit us all, to act as a think tank and sounding board, to help our trade associations win the ear of those more readily able to bring about positive change. Again, I have seen this in action time and again with R3, which aims to produce a new “value of the profession” survey in the coming months to help everyone else to understand quite how many thousands of businesses are rescued, jobs saved and individuals’ finances rehabilitated by the insolvency industry every year. I can also see the potential for local chambers to promote specific geographies and industries to great effect, whilst the Law Society remains effectively the only real voice promoting the value of the legal profession in the face of grave challenges from the loss of resources previously commanded by the Ministry of Justice. It is perhaps a trite observation to make at this point, but the promotion and survival of our industries is a necessary hygiene factor which we must have in place before we can promote our long term self-interest.
Finally, I would be as bad as some of those falling over themselves to win our votes this week were I to suggest for a moment that my own involvement with relevant trade bodies was not ultimately a matter of self-interest. In the private sector we are of course all accountable to someone for our time, and much as we may be driven by unselfish desire to do good in the world, at the end of the day our partners, shareholders and staff must expect to see a return on our investment. In my case, I have seen how engagement with trade associations can raise your individual profile and that of your own organisation. Whilst Paris Smith – having been at the heart of the Southampton business community for over 200 years – is exceptionally well known in most of Hampshire, it is perhaps less well known in the wider region covered by my role with R3, and this engagement has given us exposure far and wide. Not only have we benefited from numerous regional press releases drafted for us by R3 Press Office and regional PR agents, we have also been presented with unrivalled national networking opportunities. Similarly, involvement with the local Chamber has brought us to the attention of numerous other businesses, including potential clients and referrers, and having a shared interest in promoting a given industry and/or project serves as a natural ice-breaker and firm basis for a productive trading relationship.
I have learned over the last several years that active engagement by a business in relevant trade associations can be extremely beneficial at a number of levels. Whilst my time as Chair of R3 in the South may be at an end, I still intend to be actively involved in that body as a committee member, and to involve myself in regional Chamber events and initiatives and with Law Society campaigns where appropriate. Whilst I am sure there are many reasons why a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not entirely appropriate to all industries, in my years of advising distressed companies I have also observed that often those businesses most vulnerable to failure are those which have a stronger tendency to ‘go it alone’.
Whatever the outcome of the imminent general election, we will continue to live in uncertain times, which will throw up both challenges and opportunities. In my view, for the reasons offered above, we should find the challenges much easier to face if we are part of an industry willing to face many of them together, and to speak to power with one voice. Likewise, the opportunities are perhaps more likely to come our way if we maximise our connections across the industries in which we operate.
This will be my final blog before the Christmas break, so I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my readers for their kind attention over the year. I look forward to engaging with you on more topics of interest in 2020.