Boardroom veteran Rupert Soames to lead scandal-hit CBI

The boardroom veteran Rupert Soames is to become the next president of the CBI, the business lobby group that is trying to recover from an existential workplace misconduct scandal.

Soames, 64, will begin to take on the role early next year before formally replacing Brian McBride, 68, after members vote on the appointment at the CBI’s annual general meeting in June.

Soames has been one of the longest-serving public company chief executives in the UK, having led Aggreko, the temporary power supply company, for 11 years and overseen the turnaround of Serco, the outsourcer, for nine years.

He has been chairman of Smith & Nephew, the FTSE 100 medical equipment company, since September.

Smith & Nephew was among the companies to have left the CBI in the wake of the scandal, which brought the 58-year-old royal charter organisation to its knees this year, but plans to rejoin.

Soames, the grandson of Sir Winston Churchill and brother of Lord Soames of Fletching, the former Conservative minister, said that the “CBI is needed more now than at almost any time in its history, and it will be a privilege to lead the organisation in the coming years. After a decade of disruption and distraction due to Brexit, Covid, inflation and labour shortages, business and government need to work closely together to deliver a prosperous future where economic growth will lift living standards and sustainably fund the UK’s vital public services.”

His appointment comes before a general election with Labour ahead in the polls. Before leaving Serco at the end of last year following a painful restructuring, Soames had remarked in an interview that “I have a horrible habit of walking towards gunfire”.

The CBI has been fighting for survival since the scandal erupted, including allegations of sexual misconduct and rape.

The scandal, following revelations in The Guardian, led to an exodus of corporate members in April, including Aviva, KPMG and the John Lewis Partnership, and prompted the government and opposition to distance themselves from it.

Rain Newton-Smith replaced Tony Danker as director-general in April, and the CBI survived a membership vote on its future in June.

It overhauled its governance and finances, closed international offices in the US, India and China, cut about a third of its workforce and said it would choose a president to replace Brian McBride, the former boss of Amazon UK, as part of the changes.

McBride, who was elected president of the CBI only in June last year, less than a year before the crisis struck, said “there is no better person to pass the baton to. Rupert’s track record as one of the UK’s longest serving and most successful CEOs makes him the ideal choice.”

McBride appeared moved when he addressed CBI members at the end of its scaled-back annual conference last month, which was attended by Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, and Jonathan Reynolds, Labour’s shadow business secretary.

He has faced criticism of his leadership during the crisis, with the boss of one corporate member questioning his empathy in April. Another City source had said at the time: “Brian has been shell-shocked by the extent of it.”

Soames will take charge next year with continued question marks about the CBI’s financial strength.

In its annual report before its delayed annual general meeting on Wednesday, the CBI’s board said there was “material uncertainty” hanging over its future after facing a “considerable level of financial stress” this year, but prepared its accounts on a going concern basis.

The CBI navigated the crisis this year “through the backing of key members, the use of reserves, support from creditors and with bank financing”. The financing is due to end in September and the CBI plans to renew the facility “if required”.

It has asked members to vote for a 5 per cent increase in its fees as part of the resolutions at the annual meeting.

The CBI said it had worked with Odgers Berndtson, the headhunters, on the search for a new president.