CBI interviews outgoing BCC Chief Executive
Our Chief Executive Dr Laura Cohen bids farewell to the British Ceramic Confederation this week after announcing her decision to retire from the organisation last October.
She leaves after 13 years leading the Confederation having supported member companies through good and bad times, including recessions, Brexit, COVID-19 and now the current energy and Ukraine crises.
The CBI interviewed her for its March Trade Association Update, focussing on her time as a senior leader of a Trade Association.
You can read the full interview below (with kind permission from CBI):
Q&A with Valete Laura Cohen, outgoing CEO of the British Ceramic Confederation
Laura has always been a tireless and passionate advocate for her sector and has constantly spoken up on behalf of her members. With a PhD from Cambridge and twenty years in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries before she joined BCC, we spoke with Laura to get her reflections on being a senior leader of a Trade Association.
Firstly, Laura, can we say congratulations from everyone at the CBI on your career at the BCC, you’ve been a real champion for your industry. What are the biggest lessons you’ve learnt from your 13 years leading the sector, and do you have any advice on running a Trade Association to pass on to other CEOs?
The role of leading a trade association is absolutely to focus on our members’ representation needs. A Trade Association CEO must stand up for members even if sometimes, however tactfully messaged, it may be unpopular with some in government. The role is about supporting the businesses, jobs, and investment they represent and speaking truth to power. Without members, there is no trade association.
It’s been a tremendous privilege to serve and represent an industry that I’m proud of and helping it through two enormous recessions, and many other challenges.
Joining the CBI’s Trade Association Council has provided great value and is essential continuing professional development for Trade Association CEOs. It’s always fascinating to listen to the different perspectives and soak up the wisdom in the room from the other leaders present.
With the Government now looking longer term, especially through the Levelling Up Whitepaper, what factors would make a successful delivery plan for the ceramics sector and how can Trade Associations work with government to achieve long term growth?
Almost all our members’ sites across Britain are in areas in need of levelling-up. These manufacturers are often the beating heart of many towns, villages, and communities around the country. They support so many jobs locally and nationally, whether it’s machinery, materials and haulage companies, or IT accountants, sandwich shops and nurseries. Ceramics is a foundation industry supplying into so many critical downstream sectors including construction, energy, transport, computing, as well as consumer products.
We need a genuine partnership with government to make sure that these businesses can remain in the UK and their international competitiveness is enhanced, rather than further undermined, and eroded.
Electricity prices in the UK are higher than in most of our other European peer economies. The situation in Ukraine has added wholesale gas price increases and volatility in Britain, so we’re urging government to act to target further relief to sectors like ceramics.
We need government to take urgent action, learning from other countries to ensure manufacturing can continue in the months ahead and there is investment in both the short term and long term, not least for transitioning to net zero. Given the scale of the challenge, we just can’t do this alone. We need a much closer government partnership to ensure UK ceramic manufacturing can stay internationally competitive during this journey.
Reflecting on your time leading the sector, engaging with your members and employees, what’s been the highlight of your career in the ceramics sector?
Well, there have been several.
Firstly, several companies’ CEOs have thanked me for helping save their businesses. This means so much to me as I know this affects people’s jobs and families’ livelihoods.
The second area is it can be a really lonely time to run a business, and I know that the regular video calls we’ve had with our members and BEIS have provided a sense of mutual support and solidarity amongst ceramic manufacturers.
Thirdly, it’s always been pleasing when I’ve played some part in changing legislation or guiding government to improve legislation. It’s been very rewarding when my representations have resulted in cross party support.
And finally, I was particularly surprised and thrilled to receive an MBE for my services to the ceramics industry in 2015. That reflects on the outstanding high-performing team we have at BCC and helped raise the profile of the sector.
And was there a time that was most challenging?
I started at BCC in September 2008. In the recession, I needed to change BCC as an organisation in terms of what we were doing, so that we were completely focused helping members survive.
I’d worked in a variety of technical and regulatory roles, so was used to working with regulators, trade associations and stakeholders from different backgrounds trying to achieve consensus. But the level of organisational change at BCC was a new challenge.
The choice of President for a trade association is really important and, particularly during a recession. They provide a sounding board and different perspective and help ask the right questions.
And on a more personal note, what do you plan to do next in your career or personal life?
I’m going to continue with my role as a Royal Academy of Engineering visiting professor at Manchester University and the Henry Royce Institute, focusing on careers support and regulatory and policy areas and how these affect materials industries. I’m also continuing with some voluntary work I enjoy too.
My husband retired four years ago, and I had always intended to leave BCC at about the same time but given the enormous challenges the sector faced in the pandemic, I wanted to stay to support our members. I’m certainly looking forward to a break before considering any further commitments! I have a couple of cycling holidays planned with my husband and various language classes and activities from other local organisations starting to fill my diary.
Thank you again for all the support you’ve given to the CBI over the years and all the support you’ve given to your members and colleagues from other trade associations.