United Kingdom The British-American Business Council: Promoting The Transatlantic Business Partnership

Saturday, January 1, 2005 - 00:00

Editor: Mr. Birch, would you tell our readers something about your background and professional experience?

Birch: I grew up in central London and was educated at Shrewsbury School and University College London. I trained, qualified and practised at a major City of London law firm, Herbert Smith, from 1972 to 1978, when I moved to my current firm, Wragge & Co., in Birmingham. For the last 20 years I have concentrated on developing our firm's international practice with a prime focus on North American business clients, ranging from Fortune 500 and other publicly traded corporations to entrepreneurs.

Editor: How did you come tothe British-American Business Council?

Birch: In the early 1990s I spent several years lobbying the British government for American Airlines. At that time U.S. carriers were denied access to UK regional airports. In the course of that work I became involved in airline circles in the UK. In March of 1993 I was a guest of British Airways on the inaugural flight of their Birmingham - New York service. That trip included a meeting with the British-American Chamber of Commerce in New York, which led to an introduction to the BACC office in London. My involvement with the British-American Business Council, the BABC. came through the encouragement of British Airways' then CEO, Sir Colin Marshall (now Lord Marshall), who was the first Chairman of the BABC's International Advisory Board.

Editor: Please tell us about the history of the BABC.

Birch: The BABC had its tenth anniversary at the 2004 Spring Conference, which was held in the UK Midlands in April 2004. It came into being under the leadership of Sir Colin Marshall, whose personal standing, reputation and influence resulted in the support of other U.S. and UK multinationals and their Chairmen and CEOs, which provided the core funding for the BABC and its Secretariat in the early years.

Editor: What was the original purpose of the organization?

Birch: The essential purpose was, and is, to promote, in a variety of ways, transatlantic trade and investment. We encourage investment from the UK into North America, and vice versa.

A commitment I made, upon election as BABC President, at the expense of Wragge & Co, and not the BABC, was to visit each North American chapter during my term of office, having already visited all the UK chapters. So far, I have visited and been warmly received by 16 chapters, and I am hopeful that I shall visit the remainder by April. My central purpose is to explain and promote to each membership the even greater business opportunities to be gained from committed exploitation of inter-chapter membership networking.

Editor: Please tell us something about the organization of the BABC. There are different chapters? These represent cities or regions?

Birch: There are more than 30 chapters, some 25 in North America and 7 in the UK. Each chapter is an independent regional organization affiliated to, and supported by, the BABC as the "umbrella" organization with its Secretariat being based in New York. The BABC is recognised as the largest private sector transatlantic facilitator and enjoys the strong support of both the British and the U.S. governments.

While most BABC chapters' members are businesses of all sizes, a number of chapters have individual membership categories. New members are, of course, always very welcome.

Editor: The BABC regards itself as a link, a means of communication, between the business communities in the UK and the U.S.?

Birch: The BABC promotes the transatlantic business partnership by increasing corporate and public awareness of the importance and value the partnership has to the economies of both countries. To that end, we maintain strong ties with both the British and American governments, and we work to advance the policy interests of our members with those governments. The BABC has taken on a number of policy issues of concern to our members - issues in the areas of employment, international trade and taxation, public and private international law, and so on - and seeks to participate in the ongoing discussion and consultation on their behalf. As the largest transatlantic business network, the BABC also offers chapters and their members the opportunity to access and develop business in more than 30 regions on both sides of the Atlantic. In connection with these networking opportunities, there are a number of benefits we extend to members, including participation in the event programs offered by all BABC chapters, twice yearly Conferences, access to the members-only area of our website, promotion of members' products and services on the website, and regular updates on UK, EU and U.S. policy issues that impact upon the membership. Another benefit extended in the U.S. involves U.S. Government accredited facilitation of members' foreign labor needs in the U.S. through the J-1 visa program.

The BABC encourages the adoption of best practices throughout its member organizations and seeks to harmonize them into uniform standards that thereby increase the value of the BABC brand.

Editor: Please tell us about the BABC's Conferences.

Birch: There is a theme for each Conference. Our Conference in the UK this past spring attracted a record number of delegates and coincided with the organization's 10th anniversary. The theme was "Connections." Even the most sophisticated multinational corporations welcome help in opening doors to new opportunities, U.S.-based Keynote Speakers included former Vice President Al Gore and Sir Nicholas Scheele (President and former COO of Ford Motor Company). The 2005 Spring Conference takes place in atlanta (April 1-4).

Editor: And the BABC's EU and U.S. Policy Committees?

Birch: The BABC does not have independent capabilities in some of its policy work. We utilize the services of British American Business Inc. (BABi) in London. This includes the distribution of the BABC's Policy Focus, a bi-monthly electronic publication to all members. which is sponsored by a British FTSE 250 company, MFI Furniture Group Plc. whose CEO is the BABC's Vice President. BABi conducts a number of Policy Forums in London, as well as having outreach to Brussels through its participation in the European Council of American Chambers of Commerce.

In conjunction with BABi, we have established a British-American Business Policy Group in Washington, DC as a forum for policy discussion there and to provide overall input to the policy program led out of London. There is frequent contact with Sir David Manning, the British Ambassador in Washington, and with Sir Philip Thomas, who is both the British Consul- General in New York and the UK's Director-General for Trade & Investment in the U.S. On the European side of this discussion, current issues include revisions to European Chemicals Legislation, consumer protection laws and the Single European Company legislation.

Editor: Britain and the U.S. have had a special relationship for many years, not only in business, but in just about everything else. As the world's economy becomes more global - and companies that were known to be, say, British or Japanese or American are becoming global or international - is this changing?

Birch: While business is being conducted increasingly in a global arena, rather than nationally or by way of bilateral relationships, I believe some things remain constant. Electronic communication and the Internet have made contact and information instantaneous and inexpensive. These things are a means to an end, however, and not the end itself. I have strong views about the competitive value of networking and establishing personal relationships, and about the role that the BABC plays in this regard. I believe that these remain crucial to successful business, especially cross-border business. As the conduct of business becomes more technology-driven, and as it becomes more global, the importance of personal relationships - connections - becomes greater, not lesser, in my opinion. The continuing increase in BABC chapters' membership - and the announcements of new forming chapters, such as one in Detroit which Cherie Blair, the Prime Minister's wife, recently helped announce would seem to bear this out. We are offering the transatlantic business community something over and above what it is offered through technology alone.

The Editor interviews David Birch OBE, President, British-American Business Council.