The crisis-stricken CBI will be renamed as part of efforts to demonstrate that it has reformed its toxic workplace culture after weeks of allegations of rape, sexual harassment and bullying, the new boss of the business lobby group has said.
Rain Newton-Smith said the rebranding would be necessary as part of a promised “root and branch” reform of the organisation that has seen more than 50 leading members cut or suspend ties, raising serious questions over its financial future.
“Personally, over time, I’m sure we’re going to see a new name for the CBI, but that’s just the wrapper that goes on the outside. What matters is what we do, what we deliver and our purpose,” she told the Financial Times.
Speaking at the end of her first day in the new job at the CBI’s headquarters in the City of London, Newton-Smith did not set out a clear vision for the CBI’s future but said she was consulting leading members over how a “refocused” organisation might look.
The CBI’s board has suspended all membership and external activities since last Friday, giving Newton-Smith a month to work up a proposal for the group’s future that will be delivered at an extraordinary general meeting in early June.
“The CBI that emerges from this is not going to be the CBI of the past, that is clear. It needs to be a new, a different organisation,” she said.
Newton-Smith was brought back to take the helm of the CBI this month following the sacking of previous director-general Tony Danker.
The 47-year-old economist had only recently left to join Barclays after a nine-year stint as the CBI’s chief economist, leading to criticism that she was too much of an insider to credibly reform what the CBI board has admitted was a “toxic” workplace culture.
But Newton-Smith justified her appointment by citing her record at the CBI between 2014 and 2023 — when many of the most serious allegations took place — as proof that she was the person to convince members that the culture had changed.
“I’ve always addressed wrongdoing when I’ve seen it, and if any of my staff have ever come to me with issues, I have listened to them and made sure they were supported, and that’s the culture I want to build,” she said.
Three staff members who spoke to the FT on Wednesday backed Newton-Smith. They said her arrival had calmed staff fretting over the prospect of redundancies and in shock at the rapid disintegration of the CBI’s reputation in recent days.
“Rain spoke to the staff last week and she was extremely moving and understanding of the emotional situation staff are in. A lot of us know her well and believe she is the right person to lead the organisation out of this,” one said.
Another member of the CBI’s 300-strong workforce said that Newton-Smith’s time at the organisation had given her the essential relationships with both leading members and with senior politicians that were critical to the CBI’s survival.
However, with so many major corporate names quitting the organisation, Newton-Smith acknowledged that the group was under financial pressure and needed to coax back the big-ticket members whose subscriptions make up the bulk of its annual £25mn income.
The emergence of a second rape allegation in The Guardian last Friday triggered a run on the CBI’s memberships, with Aviva, Jaguar Land Rover, John Lewis, Virgin Media O2, WPP, ITV, Sage and Kingfisher all announcing they had quit.
The board has said it wants to see a “refocused” organisation emerge from the current process. Asked whether a “refocused CBI” meant a smaller CBI, Newton-Smith said: “It’s day one, but I think that could well be where we end up.”
She added that however it ended up, the CBI had valuable assets that had delivered good things for business. She cited as examples of CBI achievements the Covid-19 furlough and loan schemes; the corralling of big business behind the net zero agenda; and announcements on the childcare costs and investment tax breaks in the March Budget.
“What makes the CBI great is that we have economists, data analysts, tax professionals, campaigners, and policy specialists and we’ve had skills and capabilities over decades and we’ve used them to deliver with government,” she said.
For now the CBI remains frozen out of the corridors of power by both the ruling Conservative and opposition Labour parties, with Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, telling a business conference for FTSE 100 bosses there was “no point” talking to the CBI.
Newton-Smith said that demonstrating the CBI workplace culture was really changing and agreeing a new programme with members was the route to changing minds about an organisation still facing existential questions on its future.
“The chancellor may be saying that ‘I don’t want to talk to the CBI’ now, but that’s why we need to regain his trust,” she said. “Because he certainly listened to us in the past and I expect he will in the future.”