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Shevaun Haviland:
the power of the collective

Shevaun Haviland is the Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, responsible for representing British business in front of government, and around the world. An optimist who believes in vision and the power of positive thinking, Shevaun shares her passion for business as a force for good, her fundamental belief in community, and her dreams of space travel.

Made by Jo Barratt with Gemma Mortensen, Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.


I’m Shevaun Haviland, currently the Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce. Can you guess when the first ever chamber of Commerce was invented? 1599 in Marseille. So why do you think the merchants of Marseille club together against a common challenge? What do you think it was? They were coming together against a common enemy, and that was pirates. So they clubbed together and they bought themselves their own army, a privateer army, which I assume is all ex-pirates. But so that was the sort of coming together against a common enemy to protect the goods coming in. And obviously their livelihoods.

In the UK, one of the oldest Chambers of Commerce is in Newcastle. And there the boats used to come in down the Tyne into the city, and be unloaded by the merchants of the city. But the bigger boats couldn’t get all the way down the Tyne because there was a sort of small rocky island in the middle of the Tyne, and the merchants had to troop down to the island and unload the boats there. So, they thought, hmm, we need to come up with a solution to this problem. We need to get together, the power of togetherness, so they all put some money in a pot. And what did they buy with their pot of money? They bought dynamite, and they blew up the rocky island. And then the boats could come all the way down into the city.

Those stories are more to say that Chambers of Commerce are about that power of the collective. So getting together, connecting with other local businesses, finding services that can help you grow your business, and of course having a collective voice to get things changed to make it easier to do business. So that’s what Chambers of Commerce are all about. It’s our job to be that voice, that embodiment, that mouthpiece. And we do it through, you know, collecting research, we do it quantitatively, going out to thousands of businesses every quarter and asking them how they feel about the UK as the best place to start and grow a business. But actually telling the stories of those individual businesses that we go out and meet every day is so powerful. Numbers are really useful, evidence based. But the stories of those businesses really make the difference when I’m talking to the media or to the politicians, you know, Secretaries of State or to partners.

The chamber members are generally reflective of the UK economy, so about 20% will be big, big businesses, because of course all businesses are in a place. About 80% will. SMEs – small and medium enterprises, and then 10% very small sort of startups.

I get my energy from being with people, that, you know, the sort of extrovert, introvert thing. I hugely get my energy from being with people and learning new things. I’m very curious, I love to know, it doesn’t really matter what it is. You know, one of the challenges of the Chamber network is we have incredibly. broad business base, and we cover every sector and every size. But that’s also part of the power of the network too. But it means you are covering a load of bases all the time across policy, across business, across media. But actually I love it. That just gives me energy and days when we’re in the office and we’re all together and we’re coming with ideas and we’re out of our chambers and we’re thinking about what we’re gonna do about COP or, you know, I’m going to, where am I going next week? I’m going to Kirklees and to Hereford next week. And you know, they’re both running business festivals, one’s running a breakfast and I’m really looking forward to it.

People think of sort of big businesses as this weird entity over here. But actually, if you are Amazon or DHL or EDF, you are in a place, you know, Amazon’s a member of 22 different chambers, DHL 11, so really, it’s really important for them on a number of levels. It’s really important for them to be part of their community. Many of the SMEs that are members of the Chamber are also in their supply chains, so they’re suppliers or their customers. And then sort of startups are really that sort of vibrant growing part of any economy. And a lot of big business have have their own sort of incubation and accelerators because they’re looking for new ideas. And big businesses are good at lots of things but agile innovation they find quite hard to do. So that ecosystem of business of all different sizes is incredibly powerful and rich when they work together on issues.

There are 53 chambers in the UK who are members of the British Chambers of Commerce group. They, on what I’ve seen as I’ve travelled around the country is, they’re incredibly embedded in their place. So they work really closely with their local authority CEOs, with their local economic partnerships, with the chancellors of their universities, with their hospitals. I mean, really the whole, all parts of the community that make that place tick, very much at the heart of that. And that’s really important.

Last year, I was invited to the event, business event in Doncaster. It was amazing, we were really lucky we went the day after Doncaster were granted city status. And the Chamber CEO had been at the heart of that campaign to get a city status. And we turned up there and we had the new South Yorkshire Mayor, CEO of the chamber, the people running the hospitals, the chancellors of the universities, the whole place had come together to celebrate their city status, and it was just unbelievable to see. I mean, the power in that room of excitement, of renewal, of change, of optimism off the back of the city status – they all recognise that they still have some challenges in the physical city centre, but what they stood up and said was: we want Doncaster to be a place where our children don’t want to leave, they want to stay, and they want to work here, and make their home here, and have their children here. And that was just, you know, Chambers are way more than just businesses.

It is the people that make those communities happen. And it’s people who are willing to step up and be that, “I’ll organise the street party for the coronation”. And then when the first person and the second person puts their hand up, then a few more people follow. And actually though, in my experience of also running things like, I was governor of the school and I was chair of the PTA, it’s always the same 20% of people. But actually, that’s okay. That’s just the way the world works. And then I think, well, that can’t be right, can it? Because if it’s just about people, then it’s never going to be systemic. It’s never going to be part of the system, but actually it isn’t a system or a structure that makes these things happen ultimately, in the end. I think I’ve come back to my original feel on the matter that it is those people who step up first and second and third, fourth, and fifth.

One of the presidents of the Devon Chamber, he said to me, well, he said, joining your local chamber is like a cure for loneliness. I said, oh, I don’t really know what you mean by that. And he said, well, starting a business is really hard and it’s quite lonely sometimes. But if you’ve been to an event at your Chamber and you’ve met someone else doing the same thing as you, you can just pick up the phone and give ’em a ring. And they’ve probably faced the same problems.

Really the reason I took this job is because I’m a massive believer in business as force for good. My dad worked for Unilever when I was growing up. Well, he worked for Lever Brothers in Port Sunlight, which was built by Lord Lever Hume, who was one of those sort of Victorian philanthropists that believed that people weren’t just labour, but by treating people in good and positive ways, you would get more out of your workforce. So he built Port Sunlight, it was a purpose-built town, it’s very beautiful, around the factory effectively. And he gave them soap because, you know, people were working out that that killed, cleanliness killed bacteria and made people healthier and so on and so forth. So those were sort of the original Victorian philanthropists. But sort of in the middle of my career, I got involved with a foundation. And it was early, sort of, gosh, what was it? Sort of 2012/2014, when this idea of social enterprises was becoming popular. Which is the idea that businesses can be fixing social problems first as opposed to making stuff, I guess. And I just thought, well, this is what we should all be doing. And I took a role in Government then, called Business Partnerships, which was about government and business working more closely together for social policy change. So, how can we do better at helping young people into work, mental health in the workplace, ensuring people aren’t financially excluded. And ran a program called The Inclusive Economy Partnership, which was fantastic, it was working with big businesses to help accelerate the growth of social enterprises more quickly than they might already, you know, organically be able to do. And when this role at the Chambers came up, I just thought, wow, that’s business as a force for good on a whole other level, because when you go into places and you see what businesses are doing, and it’s not just about giving people jobs – obviously that’s really important – but it’s about what they do in their communities, with their charity partners, you know how they make a difference through volunteering, not just their workforce but them. And actually when you talk to the business owners who sit on their Chamber boards, for example, locally, you say, oh, why did you join your Chamber? And they start by saying the sort of obvious stuff like, oh, well, it’s good for networking, or, oh, I get some good, you know, help on the business… But eventually they say, you know, I’m, I’m part of my community. I’m here in this place and I want to give back to it. And that’s why they’re sitting on their Chamber board.

You have to be making a profit as a business to keep going and therefore do good, so it is profit with purpose. So that doesn’t mean that capitalism is wrong on every level, but we’ve got, I think it’s about a reset. And look, it’s complicated. It is. It’s not, it’s not easy. Otherwise we’d be doing it. It’s, the question is sort of, so what level of profit is the right number? How much should you be giving back to your people, to your communities, to your country? I mean, look, we can, we can see it. Climate change is a burning platform for our globe, and we’ve got to do something about it. And business has the power to do something about it, and collectively we can make a difference and that’s what we need to do.

If you believe that we need to move rapidly towards renewable energy to reduce our emissions, I think in principle everybody believes that’s the right thing to do. It’s the how and the speed. So if you take communities that are very reliant on the fossil fuel industry, like, you know, the communities around the North Sea, yes, they recognize there needs to be a transition, but you need to transition in a way that means you don’t decimate those communities. It’s the how that, I think, causes those tensions. We can do both. So we can help ensure that those communities are seeing a transition that means people don’t, you know, that that social fabric isn’t torn apart. At the same time, across the Chamber network, we’re building green innovators to help people start up new ideas and find solutions that will ensure that that transition works in a positive way, not a negative way. That you know where you are building new wind farms, for example, you are also building supply chains, on-land supply chains, and you are building capability. Therefore you are growing business, therefore you’re making, you know, you’re producing new jobs. And that’s the important thing, that you’re building a positive while working in a transition.

I had an amazing trip last Easter to some of our Scottish Chambers. I flew prop plane into Dundee and then took the train up to Inverness. And two people I met, one was the head of tourism for Lochness, just a beautiful place, and such a vibrant tourist community. Apparently sightings of Nessie take a strange spike just before the beginning of summer. But the people also going for the bid for the green port, Cromarty Firth, which many people won’t have heard of, but is this is incredible, effectively like a fjord, small but very, very deep water where they are building infrastructure to deliver a huge amount of renewable energy for the country. And she was there, talking through the bid and all the stuff that we’re gonna build, and the jobs they were gonna create, and the Chamber was at the heart of it. And it was announced four months later that they’d won the bid of the two, out of the two green ports. So just really exciting things going on in every part of our regions and nations. And that’s what you take away when you travel through the Chamber network.

Business people have to be optimists. I also think optimism is a very underrated leadership quality. I think people think it’s naivety, and it actually isn’t. It’s about vision and the power of positive thinking to take people with you on a journey.

We need the businesses of our country and our economy. I don’t run the world. To think about people, planet, and purpose whenever they’re thinking about their business. So what is the bigger purpose? How are you supporting people? And it’s not easy, you know, but we’ve got to do it every day.

We have been managing through crisis. We had three Prime Ministers last year. That didn’t help. But our job is to move forward from that. So we are absolutely looking at how we can campaign on a national level to ensure that this is about the UK as the best place to start and grow business. We are about building British business. We are about ensuring that is the best place, you know, we can find the right people, we can trade internationally. We’re grasping green innovation. You know, we are really trying to ensure that businesses have that positive narrative, because it’s a virtuous circle. You know, we need to talk up the economy. And it helps improve it. You know, you talk about polycrisis, we talk about poly-solutions. We’re about the solutions. We’re about how to help us move positively out of this situation.

The Chambers are essentially still doing what they were invented to do 250 years ago. I connect people together, help them grow their businesses, and give them voice. Would suggest that that is what we need from them. What they talk about in those fora is what changes. So Covid was a great example of the power of the network because what we were able to do was super rapidly bring the voice of business up through the Chambers into Whitehall who were making those decisions on a sort of hour to hour basis. And then feed all of that decision making back down. And sort of furlough version 1.0, we fed back to say really quickly, that’s great, but I can’t bring people back within three months, that’s a nightmare, I need to work on a three week shift, or whatever it may be. So, you know, finding the understanding in the system.
So that sort of power of the collective work doesn’t change, but what we’re talking about and how we’re using that power will change. So, you know, business leaders used to just have to run their business. Now they’ve got to think about, oh god, how’s AI going to, what’s the next digital thing I need to implement? How is AI going to impact it, impact me and my business? What are my people worried about? You know, what am I doing on diversity and inclusion? What am I doing for International Women’s Day? I mean you name it, business leaders are like, it’s the next thing I need to think about for my people. So it, it’s way more challenging than it ever has been, which brings me back to, that’s why it’s really important to be together. Connect, network, lean on other people, learn from what they’re doing. Don’t make other people’s mistakes.

Is it sort of bizarre to say, I always wanted to be able to fly? Literally fly. I mean just, the freedom and the… I guess I’m quite independent and curious. So I started learning to fly, about five years ago, and it transpired that in the UK they give you 15 minutes notice that you’re allowed to go up, because you have to fly under the weather. Well, then I got this job and I can no longer learn to fly because I do not, ha, I cannot work on a 15 minute turn turnaround.

Remember Virgin Galactic? The thing with Richard Branson. It was 2010/2009 when he invented it, and I was like, oh, can I get a ticket? I want a ticket, I want a ticket. And everyone went, don’t be ridiculous. What? You are going to die. Why would you want to do that? That you know, first thing I want to do is get a ticket. Go to space. Can you imagine? I love it. If Richard Branson’s listening, I’m still in for a ticket on Virgin Galactic.