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Digby Jones: Why The New Troubleshooter makes me go gooey

Lord Jones explains how The New Troubleshooter came about, and how he came to pick up the baton from his ‘hero’ Sir John Harvey-Jones, who presented the first series in 1990

Lord Jones of Birmingham
Lord Jones of Birmingham

You might not expect to hear the word “gooey” coming from the mouth of Lord Digby Jones.

He’s a hard-nosed businessman and politician, not known for soppy emotions.

So it’s surprising to hear him say “It made me go all gooey inside” while talking about business.

He’s referring to the success of someone taking his advice and it working, which is what he’s trying to do with his BBC2 series The New Troubleshooter.

In this case it happened off screen, with a small business he’d rather not name just outside Leamington Spa, Warwickshire.

“When they called me in, it was obvious to me that the boss worked incredibly hard and was respected, but just couldn’t communicate,” remembers Lord Jones, the former head of the CBI.

“So I mentored him, got him to loosen up and take people along with him.

“That worked out really well. I was chuffed when I got an email from him after the first episode of The New Troubleshooter went out.

“He said he had never forgotten what I had done for him. That made me go all gooey inside.

“It makes it all worthwhile, because some people can be very stubborn and not want to listen. It can be very frustrating, especially if they manage to make money out of luck rather than ability.”

Lord Jones explains how The New Troubleshooter came about, and how he came to pick up the baton from his ‘hero’ Sir John Harvey-Jones, who presented the first series in 1990.

And he explains why he dislikes the way business is portrayed on television by the likes of Lord Alan Sugar on The Apprentice.

“I’ve been going on at the Beeb for a few years, telling them that business isn’t about a man getting out of Rolls-Royce and shouting ‘You’re fired!’ at people.

“And it shouldn’t be about humiliating someone with a bright idea, making them feel stupid and saying you won’t invest in them, as in Dragons’ Den.

“That’s not a personal criticism of Lord Sugar, who I know. He has great business acumen, but it’s the format of the show I don’t like. It’s excellent TV for entertainment, but it’s not business and I don’t want a kid of 15 watching and thinking it is.

“Every time there’s a criminal in a soap opera, they make him a businessman.

“For the good of the country, the mood music must change so that policemen, nurses and the whole of society understands how important business is.

“Only business generates the wealth which pays the taxes which funds the public sector.

“We need to change how business is portrayed on TV, but I didn’t want to do a reality show. I didn’t want to be a kind of Gordon Ramsay, going into kitchens and swearing at people.

“Not a word of The New Troubleshooter was prepared, I went about it exactly as I do when I go into businesses.

“I don’t tell people what to do, I work with them and try to get them to a point where they make a decision themselves. Then they will buy into it better.

“I find a bit of humour goes a long way.”

Lord Jones, 58, was born above his parents’ corner shop in Alvechurch and grew up selling sweets and groceries to the workers at the nearby Austin works.

He won a scholarship to Bromsgrove School and read law at University College London. He worked for 20 years at Birmingham firm Edge and Ellison in corporate finance, becoming CBI director general for six years from 2006.

Gordon Brown made him a life peer so he could take over the position of Minister of State for Trade and Investment in 2007. He resigned a year later and sits as a crossbencher in the Lords.

Lord Jones, an Aston Villa fan, lives three miles outside Stratford-upon-Avon with his wife Pat. They have no children.

He says: “It was Pat’s 50th birthday about five years ago, and I asked her what she would like – jewellery, a big party, a luxury holiday? She said ‘I just want to see more of you’.

“She took her chance 32 years ago on a young Birmingham lawyer and has put up with a lot, so it’s the least I can do.

“I’ve tried to stick to my promise.

“I’m about to go up to Newcastle to do some advisory work for BP, but I’ll make sure I come home again tonight to God’s own city.

“We have sold our place in London and used the proceeds to pay off the mortgage in the Midlands, as that’s where I spend most of my time now.

“I advise many Midland companies like Triumph, Jaguar, JCB and Grove Industries near Stratford-upon-Avon. About two thirds of that work isn’t in London.

“I spend 60 per cent of my time advising and public speaking, 20 per cent in the House of Lords – I go a couple of times a week – and 20 per cent on charity work.”

Lord Jones says he is keen to do a second series of The New Troubleshooter if ratings hold up, though he will probably be no less impatient.

“I love being the centre of attention and I love the sound of my own voice, but I don’t like all the standing around and waiting involved in television,” he sighs.

“We shot one scene where I spin a globe round and point to the UK. It lasts no more than 10 seconds but took an hour to film.

“As a time and motion study, I’m sure it could be done more effectively, though probably not with a better result.”

Lord Jones is particularly keen to return to the companies he has advised for The New Troubleshooter – Hereford Furniture, Hawick Knitwear in Scotland and white goods firm Ebac in County Durham.

In that respect he differs from Sir John Harvey-Jones, who was famously damning of Morgan cars. They rejected his advice and continued to preserve traditions, which proved successful.

“They didn’t make him go back and eat humble pie, did they?” says Lord Jones. “But I would – I’m prepared to admit it when I get it wrong. That’s not a sign of weakness.

“I think the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given was 30 years ago by John Wardle, my senior partner at Edge and Ellison.

“I was carrying his bags on a deal and said ‘That was easy’ when we’d finished.

“He looked me in the eye and said ‘People who make things look easy work hard, prepare and take nothing for granted’.

“He made me feel about three inches tall but I’ve never forgotten it. There’s no substitute for hard work and you must never be complacent.

“I would also emphasise the importance of training and communication – people prefer bad news to no news – and of listening to the experience of others. Don’t rubbish your opposition, watch what they do right.

“And surround yourself with people who are cleverer than you. You are there to lead them, not to beat them.”

  • Digby Jones: The New Troubleshooter continues on BBC2 on Thursdays at 8pm.

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