The former Siemens boss is passionate about levelling up the UK’s regions, but fears the current government doesn’t share his vision of a long-term business partnership
The original piece appeared in the Observer, edited by Richard Partington on Tue 7 Mar 2023.
Feature photograph taken in my home by Gary Calton/the Observer
The original piece is at: click here
Jürgen Maier is bouncing as he opens the door of his home in south Manchester. After retiring as chief executive of Siemens UK three years ago, the industrialist has been hard at work in his office overlooking the garden of his detached Edwardian home. With Britain’s economy close to recession, a cost of living crisis, global heating, a green transition, Brexit and deep regional divisions, there are plenty of problems he wants to fix.
Having moved the Siemens UK headquarters to Manchester in one of his final acts before retiring, and become vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, Maier is one of the leading voices pushing to level up the UK’s lopsided regional economy.
“We are in the deepest series of crises any of us in our professional careers have ever experienced,” he says. “Yet, at the same time, we find ourselves with the worst possible relationship between business and government. It really is that bad.”
Rather than tax cuts or a bonfire of regulation in next week’s budget, he says, Rishi Sunak’s government ought to wake up and recognise that this isn’t the way to run a 21st-century economy. Rather than a “1980s playbook”, it should be working for closer ties between business and government, better relations with unions, and a clear industrial strategy.
He admits our conversation is “a bit of a whingeing session”, but there is a purpose to it. Since leaving Siemens after 33 years, Maier has started vocL, an app-based business mentoring and speaking platform. Siemens, John Lewis, Sainsbury’s, Timpsons, Arup and Brompton Bikes are all on board, keen to foster the next generation of bosses willing to speak out on big political issues.
None of what was in [Liz Truss’s] mini budget was being called for by business. How did business stand by and allow it to happen?
“We think the future will be a different political landscape,” he says. “I’m not trying to predict the outcome of a general election, but whoever assembles a government will draw the conclusion that they need a better relationship with business. We want to equip the business leaders of the future with the tools, knowledge and, frankly, moral courage to engage in a positive political and private sector relationship.”
For years, he says, company chiefs have largely ducked the public sphere, preferring to stay silent on the big issues. Now Maier wants them to speak up.
He uses Liz Truss’s “dreadful” mini-budget to highlight the importance of doing so. “None of what was in that mini-budget was being called for by business. How did business stand by and allow it to happen? We need to be at the top table, helping create policies that are good for business and society.”
Maier is adept at practising what he preaches. He talks 19 to the dozen, is full of stories and, as a regular panellist on BBC Question Time, clearly isn’t afraid of a robust debate – not least when it comes to Brexit, of which he is an outspoken critic.
Business support for Rishi Sunak’s “Windsor framework” Northern Ireland deal is strong, he says. “It’s a return to a sensible conversation … and provides some confidence that we’re moving in the right direction.”
Despite this, Maier thinks a wider campaign to rejoin the EU is still years away: “We’re miles from that, honestly. And I don’t believe that is where business is at all.” European ties are second nature for Maier, a proud Anglo-Austrian. His home is full of signs of his dual heritage: Austrian wine in the fridge, walls adorned with a painting of the Wörthersee (where he has a second home in the Alps), plus framed prints of Manchester landmarks.
Born in 1964 in Germany to Austrian parents, he moved to Leeds aged 10 after his mother remarried an Englishman from County Durham. Starting school as a “foreigner” who couldn’t speak English, and realising he was gay, made for a tough start. “It was awful, to be honest. I had to learn quickly.”
He remembers after-school fights between boys from his comprehensive – Allerton Grange in the suburb of Moortown – and a local rival, surreptitiously helped by a PE teacher who taught boxing. “It’s now sort of the Didsbury of Leeds,” he says of the area where his mother still lives, meaning it’s fairly affluent. “But when I came to the UK it certainly wasn’t.”
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, he and a friend jumped in his battered car and drove there to witness the moment. ‘I just wanted to see it. I wanted to be a part of history. And it was fascinating’
His degree in engineering at Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent University) was sponsored by Siemens, and he did an industrial placement there before starting as graduate engineer in 1986 at its factory in Congleton, Cheshire.
As Maier was growing up, northern England’s industrial backbone was crumbling. “It’s why I’m so passionate about these things. I want to be part of the generation that improved that,” he says. And there is a lot to be learned from Germany’s approach: “The scale, the gravitas, the long-termism, the strategic intent. And the business partnership with government.”
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, he and a friend jumped in his battered Ford Granada and drove from Congleton to witness the moment. “I just wanted to see it,” he says. “I wanted to be a part of history. And it was fascinating.”
Maier recalls that during die Wende (the turn), as the reunification period is known, Siemens loaned some top employees to the German government to help in piecing the country back together.
The UK could learn lessons on close partnership between government and industry, but will it?
“There’s the odd minister, you know, with the right intent,” he says. But the big danger is that without a consistent plan, regional divisions will remain, and Britain will fall behind as other countries steal a march in building the green economy of the future.
Although he won’t be drawn on how he votes, he says Labour clearly has a better relationship with business.
His big ask is that any government develops and sticks to a proper industrial strategy: “I don’t care what you call it. Let’s just have something sustainable. It’s about confidence, long-termism and partnership.”
Family Lives with his husband, Richard, and their dachshund, Max, in Didsbury, Manchester.
Education Nottingham Trent University, BSc in production engineering, on a Siemens-sponsored programme.
Last holiday Skiing in Austria, where he has a lakeside home..
Best advice he’s been given
“Learn how to slow down.” It’s rooted in Germanic and Austrian culture, he says.
Phrase he overuses “One-pager,” a phrase his colleagues at vocL laugh at him for overusing.
Biggest career mistake Being impatient and shooting for senior jobs too early. “It’s a mistake I’ve made several times.”
How he relaxes “I don’t!” he laughs. “Hiking in the mountains – in either the Peak District or the Alps.”