David Frost has waged war in two major financial battles — and come out fighting.
The economist watched the recession of the early 1980s “decimate” UK manufacturing and the 2008 economic downturn spawn banking breakdown, two crises that arguably defined his career.
Through 1981 and 82, Newcastle-born Frost became known as a troubleshooter as he merged chambers of commerce up and down the country. He built up training programmes to help scupper youth unemployment and by 2007, and then director general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), signposted the Bank of England to the next recession.
“The recession in the early Eighties made today look like a kid’s tea-party,” the 59-year-old recalls.
“Manufacturing was decimated and for a year there were major closures — 3,000 redundancies, 5,000 redundancies — every week. The atmosphere was very difficult and youth unemployment soared.”
But a training operation was born during the economic turmoil, planting a strong resolve in the father-of-two to help to prepare young people for the world of work and bridge the skills gap.
“Training boards were set up and I used one in the West Midlands as the nucleus to build a big training company called PTP — Performance Through People — which is still there,” he says.
“It was one of the first times these kind of companies and training opportunities had happened. Young people were learning textiles, engineering, business administration, enabling them to get their first job.”
“It gave me knowledge for life — that we need to deal with youth unemployment.”
Even after a successful career in which he travelled the globe as a member of government delegations representing the interests of 100,000 British businesses, it is youth unemployment that has resonated with him most.
“From the day I started my working life to the day I finished, the big cry from employers was that schools were not equipping young people with the skills they needed for the modern world,” says Frost, who now lives in Sutton Coldfield.
“The message is still out there now.
“Having young people without skills just stores up big problems for the future — my interest was to give them skills.”
Frost now acts as chair for vInspired, a charity dedicated to volunteering opportunities for young people, the Studio Schools Trust, which helps to develop skills, and the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education.
The keen motorcyclist, who’s travelled much of Europe “in the comfort of his leathers”, says that attending a technical school in Northumberland had a “huge impact” on him.
“People were boxed as either vocational or academic, but I feel many — including me — were both,” he says.
“I can strip an engine blind, I can weld and I can use a lathe. But I’m not unusual, many of my friends are the same. The practical experience of hands-on work has served me well throughout life — that’s why I’m a huge fan of university technical colleges.”
Frost, who met his wife Mari while studying political economy at Thames Polytechnic in the 1970s, started out as an economist in London.
After moving to Walsall Chamber of Commerce, he quickly rose through the ranks to become, at 33, the organisation’s youngest chief executive.
He took the lead in merging the chamber with others in the area to form East Mercia Chamber of Commerce, before moving on in 2000 to another chamber, in Coventry and Warwickshire.
After seeing the organisation through much change — such as the coming and going of local employer networks, training and enterprise councils and the Learning and Skills Council — Frost was invited to London to help to restructure the BCC.
He was soon asked to “put his hat in the ring” and apply to become the organisation’s next general director. He then spent the next nine years building up the BCC as a “powerful brand”, visiting countries, from Malaysia to Mexico and the United States to South Africa. But he says that his “highlight” was a trip to China with Peter Mandelson.
“We were in the Great Hall of the People with the Chinese premier. Just seeing how effective Mandelson was at promoting the interests of British producers was staggering,” he remembers.
“He was confident, at ease, not overawed — just very, very good.”
Frost also travelled the UK, talking to businesses to find out what issues they were facing.
“Essentially we were able to call the recession in 2007,” he says.
“Going round the country it was quite clear that the whole of bank lending had ground to a halt.
“It was having a great impact — long established family businesses were having issues with lending as credit was glued up.
“I was a lone voice saying ‘this economy is going into meltdown’ and others were saying ‘no, it’s not as bad as it looks’,” he says.
“I remember being called into the Bank of England and to talk to members of the Monetary Policy Committee and going through statistics — the scale of the work we were doing became clear.”
He says the chamber’s main role was then to make businesses aware of the looming troubles and to help them to prepare, giving advice, for example, on cash flow.
“People were more prepared and not so many businesses failed as in previous recessions,” he says.
When he stepped down in 2011, he took on the role of chairing the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEPs) Network.
The 39 partnerships have changed dramatically in the past 19 months since they started, he says.
“The government is determined to get growth and realises it can’t do everything from Whitehall. It wants to see more devolution,” says Frost.
“The link with FE will vary from one part of the country to the other but at the end of the day, LEPs must have a clear understanding of what’s happening with the labour market in their area, and ensure provisions will be there for young people.
“Companies are looking to expand but people haven’t got the skills to do it, so they should act as the body that has an understanding of what’s happening in the labour market.
“They will be important in transferring how companies are thinking in the next three to five years and working with providers to ensure provisions are there.”
Are their increased powers a good thing?
“Absolutely,” he says.
“I don’t think it’ll be easy — the centre will have to let go and provide a single pot of money and give freedoms, but at the same time LEPs will have to step up to the plate and really show how they can make a difference.
“Some will succeed. But just because some don’t perform well doesn’t mean that LEPs are a failure — that’s just localism. You’ve got to let things flourish. If it’s evident some are failing we should be looking at the quality of the leadership on the boards and act upon it.”
What has driven the engineer’s son who was awarded the CBE in 2011 for services to business?
“I have always believed in hard work and a can-do attitude,” he admits.
“Perhaps it’s the Geordie in me, but I live to work. I have never had a day where I thought I didn’t want to go to work, ever.
“You’re only on the planet once, so don’t waste it.”
It’s a personal thing
What’s your favourite book?
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
What did you want to be when you were younger?
A fighter pilot
What do you do to switch off from work?
Cycling and motorcycling are the best therapy — however, I’m not sure you ever switch off completely. I always think life is like riding a bicycle — stop pedalling and you fall off
If you could invite anyone to a dinner party, living or dead, who would it be?
Sir Bradley Wiggins, Dame Ellen MacArthur, Robert Stephenson [19th century railway engineer] and Lord Dearing [author of a government review into higher education]
What would your super power be?
Changing my birth date, ideally to 1815 — when Britain was becoming a huge manufacturing superpower, and place of innovations and new technology like the railways. It must have been incredibly exciting.