A more united front – and a return to a ‘can-do’ mentality – will help business tackle the challenges ahead, says James Stewart, KPMG in the UK's lead on Brexit.
Of all the gripping exploits from Pyeongchang, nothing captures the risk-reward dynamic better than bobsleigh teams bombing down a mile-long course at 135kph.
The teamwork, the minute calibrations as they shift their combined weight around those bends, every individual working together for the best possible outcome: it’s tempting to ask whether there isn’t a lesson here as we navigate our response to Brexit?
[Quick disclaimer: I’m not about to embark on a stream of quips about spinning out of control. But that notion of business being all on the same side is one I find very compelling, with the UK’s exit now just 13 months away].
As I write, the prime minister and her cabinet are at Chequers working to secure common ground on what kind of trading relationship we want with the EU. That sense of a clear way forward is what businesses – and everyone else – have been calling for with growing urgency.
But it’s not just the politicians who need to reach consensus. Those of us in business also have a similar role to play. ‘Business’ as a collective noun tends to imply that we all speak, act, think as one, as I said in a previous Column. Yet just as a bobsleigh team will have very different objectives to an ice dancer, or a ski jumper versus a speed skater, so different sectors will have completely different concerns that alter their desired outcomes. A high street food retailer will be primarily concerned with the robustness of their supply chains or the impact of exchange rates on consumer prices. A financial services firm won’t be worried about trade tariffs, but acutely alert to the question of equivalence or the possible need to set up an EU subsidiary.
Clients are sharing those concerns with us all the time, including at a recent event KPMG jointly hosted with the FT for business leaders across a wide cohort of industries. One guest stressed that, even within sectors there can be a divergence of priorities – investment banks need different assurances to asset managers, for example.
But that spectrum of priorities can lead to intransigence and the imposition of red lines. Within politics – and to some extent within business – there are currently three schools of thought on Brexit. Remain in the EU; leave; or aim for a soft Brexit, maintaining close alignment with the EU. The longer this level of disagreement prevails and more the intellectual firepower is segmented, the greater risk of a worse outcome for the UK.
Compromise is often difficult, but there is simply no silver-bullet solution here to please all. The more businesses see each other’s point of view, whatever their sector, the better positioned we will be. Under a unified banner it will be far easier for individual businesses to raise their head to point out where any genuine risks lie.
In recent months, the country has sometimes felt like it’s in a state of paralysis. But despite all the uncertainty, there’s still plenty business could be doing right now. That’s not just a matter of ‘no regrets planning’ – doing the things that make good business sense, with or without Brexit. It’s also about businesses getting back onto the front foot: redirecting the emotional and intellectual energy used on Brexit back into “seeing what’s possible”; devising innovative solutions to help boost growth, particularly in the regions; exploring how technology can transform the workplace in both the public and private sector; and working out how we can equip our young people with the skills they and we need to manage that change. Get all this right, and it promises to be a very exciting ride.
This article represents the views of the author only, and does not necessarily represent the views or professional advice of KPMG in the UK. You can register for the email subscription list of this column and expert views from our Brexit leaders.