Business West appoints top business leader as new chair

Ian Mean
Director of Business West Gloucestershire | Business West
18th July 2022

Colin Skellett is an inspirational business leader who has just become chair of Business West, one of the largest Chambers of Commerce in the UK.

The current Chief Executive Officer of the YTL/Wessex Water group of companies, Colin was put under the business microscope about his new role by Ian Mean, Business West’s Gloucestershire director and former editor of the Western Daily Press.

You left school at 16 for your first job at a Nottingham sewage plant. You have had a hugely successful career. What motivates you?

People and getting things done. One of my greatest satisfactions is seeing people develop and do well.

I left school at 16 in Nottingham and the careers master said there was a job going at the local sewage works. You might say I fell into water by accident!

Part of my first job was responsibility for a box of teeth - people used to toddle along to the treatment works to see if we had their false teeth that had dropped into the loo. That was my first experience of customer service!

Do you have a mentor or someone who has inspired you?

I had a very strict primary teacher who made me work hard enough to gain a place at a grammar school.  Then I had an inspirational chemistry teacher who stimulated my interest in science.

Later on, when I was appointed chief executive of Wessex Water in 1988 to take it through privatisation our new chairman, Nick Hood, taught me a great deal about investors, brands and how the City worked.

What is your vision for Business West going forward?

The overarching one is to be a really effective representative of our  thousands of businesses but also the people who live and work in our areas and the communities we serve.

I am a really strong believer that business has a major part to play. Everything comes from business and we don’t have anything without  business. People argue how to carve up the pie but it’s business that creates the pie in the first place.

We need to identify the key areas where we might be able to make a real difference.  For example, we are currently looking at the Swindon area and what we might be able to achieve there because there is so much opportunity. If you look at what Business West has been able to achieve in Bristol over the years we can do the same in other places.

We also need to identify the big new opportunities, such as hydrogen. Or low carbon technologies, areas where I think we can make a real difference.

And finally, we must make sure all the commercial things we do are successful in growing because this is the engine that provides the fuel to enable us to be effective In our other areas of activity.

How do we become a really effective voice? Business West is  incredibly powerful. If you look at the number of members and the areas we cover, we are probably the most powerful business organisation in this area and one of the most powerful Chambers in the country.

We need to use that power constructively in partnership with the public sector to get the things this area needs.

You are a strong leader-why do you think being a visibly strong leader in this region is important?

What I have done is to try and articulate clearly what the various businesses I am involved in are doing and to create a shared vision within these businesses.

Leadership is not about ‘Up Boys and At Em ’, it’s about getting people to come with you. Communications is almost everything. Communications drives what people hear, what they think and how they perceive things. 

Business West must have clarity of vision – what we are and what we want to do. And then communicate clearly and consistently.

I am concerned that our partnerships are not as strong as they might be, not helped by some of the very public differences within the West of England Combined Authority.

If you talk to government, they just want clarity - what are the things that will make a difference. If business and the public sector are in line and speak with one voice we are far more likely to get what the region needs.

One of our biggest challenges is the Levelling Up agenda, which sort of assumes we are ok down here in the South West and it’s all about doing things up North.

We are one of the only regions outside London that is a net contributor to Treasury. We have the right to say: Hang on a minute, a lot of it is our money which we are  contributing. But we also have significant areas of deprivation and we need support to deal with that deprivation and to deliver a growing economy. 

We need to develop a clear message together with the public sector on the things that will make a difference to this area.

Why do you think this area tends to be ignored by government?

It’s because we are not joined up properly. 

Much has been achieved and WECA have obtained some significant/general funding but we don’t hear a lot about it.

Within the Northern Powerhouse or Midlands Engine, there are lots of political bodies and lots of in-fighting but they do it privately. Publicly, in partnership with business, they go forward together to engage with government – we need to so the same. 

What creates a healthy economy?

A good transport infrastructure is essential and we still have a lot of things we can do better on transport investment.

Skills are key and we are really  fortunate in this area to have the universities and a highly skilled workforce.

You also need investment and to empower and encourage investment to take place. We need to focus as Business West on where the future investment needs support.

I see one of Business West’s jobs is to try and identify key prospects and to help, facilitate and encourage.

You have worked hard to ensure the politicians recognise the importance of our local business community - how vital is that?

Local business is absolutely vital and getting politicians to recognise that is essential.  Most business is local so as well as focussing on government and future big opportunities we need to be effective locally.  Engaging with our members, helping them to network and ensuring their local needs are recognised and met. 

What are the challenges you foresee for people running businesses over the next ten years

The challenges for the next couple of years are all around inflation, the cost of living crisis and its impact on ability to pay, this will be a real challenge for business. And we have that overlaid with supply chain issues and the labour shortages.

Look beyond that and then you are into the serious challenges of climate change. We need a ‘can do’ approach because if we don’t get it right, the consequences of climate change will affect every person and every business.

If you were appointed Prime Minister tomorrow, what do you do think the priorities should be for business?

I think we have got to find a way in re-establishing sensible trading relationships with Europe.  That doesn’t mean going backwards. It’s our biggest trading partner so how can we work far more effectively? How can we simplify things for business?

We need to be less focussed on trying to re-invent the past and work out where we are going to be in the future. Levelling Up is the right thing but what’s the plan and the strategy for delivering it?

Politics inevitably drive short term behaviours but business is long term and we need to bring our long term thinking to the table. I believe that Business West is perfectly positioned to do that.

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