Shevaun Haviland is the can-do crusader for British business

Ambition: Shevaun Haviland wants to reform business rates

Ambition: Shevaun Haviland wants to reform business rates

Shevaun Haviland describes herself as a ‘classic extrovert’. That’s probably a useful trait in her role as director general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC).

And it has paid dividends since she was pushed centre stage as the voice of UK plc after the BCC’s most prominent peer, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), was engulfed in a sex scandal earlier this year.

As the CBI rapidly retreated into the shadows – cancelling events and seeing big names such as retailer John Lewis and insurer Aviva scrap their memberships – the BCC moved into the spotlight.

Haviland, 51, is unapologetic about filling the void as the country edges closer to the next Election.

‘A lot of corporates came to us after the CBI issues to say, ‘Can you help?’,’ she says.

‘Ultimately the point is we are a year, 18 months away from a General Election, it’s a crucial time for our economy. It’s a crucial time for business to have a voice.’

Haviland, who has led the BCC since 2021, wasted no time in beefing up her organisation, which represents 70,000 businesses of all shapes and sizes that collectively employ six million people.

She quickly set up a national business council, which will allow members that it currently represents via local chambers to have representation on a UK-wide level for an additional subscription.

This was already in the pipeline, but Haviland admits it was ‘expedited’ by the CBI’s crisis.

The timing almost certainly helped it to attract big-name founding members, which included oil giant BP, Heathrow airport and hotels group IHG, though she declines to say how many firms have joined in total.

‘It’s going really well, we’re talking to a lot of businesses,’ is the most she will say.

Some may argue that the BCC has an old-fashioned, somewhat stuffy image. But the forthright Haviland – whose glamorous shoes match her power suits – could not be further from this.

These days it is she, rather than Rain Newton-Smith, the new head of the bruised but still-running CBI, who is more likely to be seen trooping through Downing Street to meet the Chancellor or rubbing shoulders with the Prime Minister’s advisers.

Fortunately for her, she already knows her way around Westminster, following a couple of Government roles.

Haviland grew up in different parts of the country as her family moved for work, and she studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford – the first person in her family to go to university.

She later worked at a data consultancy in London and New York and subsequently at Disneyland Paris.

A job at advertising agency WPP followed next – and after that, Haviland and a friend launched a digital marketing agency, working with clients such as vodka brand Smirnoff and online fashion retailer Asos.

There was then was a role in the Cabinet Office to work with big business for social policy change, followed by a spell running Theresa May’s business relations team in Downing Street.

Then her current role came up, and ‘it happily transpired that understanding big business, small business and start-ups and government was a useful combination. Two years in, it’s been amazing.’

She has wasted no time in picking the big issues of the day that she wants the BCC and politicians to grapple with.

Her areas of interest include the ‘digital future’, which includes the rapid development of artificial intelligence and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ‘net zero’ green agenda.

But for all the new-fangled technologies being debated in Westminster and the City, there is one very traditional topic she feels passionate about: the great British High Street.

With sky-high energy bills adding to the pain that retailers have had to withstand in the era of internet shopping, she believes that reform of the hated tax known as business rates, one of her long-standing gripes, could be a way to revive the country’s town centres. ‘It stunts growth,’ Haviland says. ‘What we’ve got to look at is policies that get us back to growth.’

One of those could be a sliding scale of business rates to enable new companies to establish themselves before they are whacked with big tax bills.

‘We had a great start-up food online business. The owner wanted to open on the high street – which meant £10,000 in business rates before they had sold one chocolate bar. Then she decided just not to do it. You see these challenges everywhere you go.’

Haviland acknowledges that times are now tough for the firms she represents, thanks to persistent inflation and rising interest rates.

‘It’s been challenge and shock after challenge and shock for business – it’s been really, really hard.

‘A lot of them I talk to say, ‘It’s never been this hard in my 40-year career’.’ As well as looking at the big picture affecting businesses, Haviland also has forthright opinions on wider issues.

She is affronted by the continued lack of progress for women, which she finds ‘hugely dismaying’.

‘Look at Roe vs Wade in the US [an historic ruling freeing women to have abortions, which was overturned last year] – we’re going backwards, in some places, in terms of women’s rights. That’s just disgraceful.

‘It’s been what it’s been for so long – it’s institutionally baked in, and the good thing is, it is now being publicly talked about and hopefully things will change.’

Haviland also may fall on what, for many, is the wrong side of the ‘woke capitalism’ debate. She rejects the view of fund manager Terry Smith, who has made headlines for his attacks on the idea of brands having a purpose.

‘If I was being cynical, I would suggest that he was focused on short-term quarterly gains rather than long-term betterment of the people and planet,’ she says.

‘Big corporates are relatively new to this story. If you think about the small and medium-sized businesses of the nation, that’s what they do day in and day out. They employ local people, they look after their staff and their environment.’

Her father worked for consumer goods giant Unilever for 30 years and she describes its former chief executive, Paul Polman, as an inspiration when it comes to the idea of making business a ‘force for good’.

‘He was so revolutionary and cutting edge when using Unilever brands like Dove to tell a different story and show that you can have successful businesses and drive purpose at the same time.’

Haviland has a unique perspective by leading the BCC, whose raison d’etre is to be close to business and is a bottom-up rather than a top-down organisation.

She remains a through-and-through cheerleader for corporate Britain, which has this year been beset by rising interest rates, inflation and by a series of FTSE 100 companies ditching the London Stock Exchange for the US. The mood, for many, has been glum.

‘Despite the challenges, our job is about taking that can-do, entrepreneurial attitude – bottling it, turbo-charging it, ensuring we can make the UK the best place to start and grow a business. I do think we have to be careful.

‘We have to be confident in our country, the incredible capabilities and talent that we have.

‘I think we should be careful that we’re not talking ourselves down.’

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