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‘Business only thrives when society thrives’

Judi Bevan hears the views of Paul Myners, the left-leaning millionaire art collector who has just become Gordon Brown’s City minister

8 October 2008

12:00 AM

8 October 2008

12:00 AM

Judi Bevan hears the views of Paul Myners, the left-leaning millionaire art collector who has just become Gordon Brown’s City minister

There is a telling mischief about the way the new City minister dresses. A double-breasted dove-grey pinstripe suit is worn with a white shirt worthy of a detergent ad, no tie but tasteful cuff links, black brogues and socks. There is an arresting slash of colour from a chunky orange plastic watch strap for his black Calvin Klein timepiece. All very Mondrian — but then until his appointment last week, Paul Myners, soon to be Lord Myners, was the chairman of the Tate trustees. He is such a keen collector of contemporary art that his Belgravia house does not just have paintings on the walls, it has installations.

In order to give them due respect the house is scarily tidy. ‘When we moved here five years ago we decided to do something contemporary and modern.’ It feels like an art gallery with furniture, all clutter banished. ‘Oh the clutter is here,’ says his wife Alison — who chairs the Contemporary Arts Society, among other things. To prove it she opens a deep drawer in the pristine white lacquer kitchen to reveal a pile of notepads. ‘It’s just hidden.’

Despite a long career in the City, initially as a blue button at the stock jobber Wedd Durlacher, then at NM Rothschild where he became its youngest ever director, and finally at the fund management group Gartmore where he made a tidy fortune, Myners’s interests have always been wide, covering not just art, but opera and good works as well. Known for his iconoclastic views, considerable ego and ferocious temper, he is the author of five government reports, and maintains a panoply of important connections ranging from Damien Hirst to Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, where he served on the Court until last week. ‘I have worked in the City but I have never been of the City,’ says Myners in his rich, fruity voice with its clear but classless delivery.

Such a stance makes him well suited for the newly created role of City minister — where, in these turbulent times, he will help Westminster and the City understand each other better. ‘The challenge facing the City and financial institutions is huge and the opportunity to help find solutions is very appealing,’ says Myners. It must be. In order to take up the job, he is renouncing the plural life and forfeiting around £1 million of income and £3 million of deferred equity payments. He is also waiving his ministerial salary.

That should silence some critics who have wondered how he could square his wealth — estimated at around £30 million — and business prominence with his left of centre politics and his work for prison reform and the Low Pay Commission. He cannot see the problem. ‘Business will not thrive within a gated community,’ he says. ‘Business has a social role — it will only thrive when society thrives.’

His career so far has not been without mishap. Myners stepped up to be chairman of Marks & Spencer in 2004, when Sir Philip Green made his indicative offer of £4 a share, and was largely responsible for parachuting in Sir Stuart Rose and the team who saw off the marauder. Sadly, he now feels, he allowed a non-executive director, Kevin Lomax, to manoeuvre him off the board two years later. M&S has not fared so well without him and the shares now hover close to £2. Myners though, moved on — despite regular dinners with Rose.

Glossy and congenial, he is out and about most evenings cutting a swath through the worlds of politics, banking, art and opera. ‘I do have a great deal of energy,’ he says with a smile.

Until last week he was chairman of Guardian Media Group, the property giant Land Securities and the Low Pay Commission; he was also a director of the secretive hedge-fund group GLG, as well as a trustee of Glyndebourne.

He found the contrasts intriguing. ‘It is an extraordinary feeling going from a meeting at the Low Pay Commission to one at GLG,’ he says. ‘In 11 years of socialist government the “Gini” co-efficient [a measure of inequality] of income distribution is as wide as it has been in the past 40 years.’

He is also a former journalist. As someone who covered the secondary banking crisis of 1973-74 for the Daily Telegraph under the City editorship of Kenneth Fleet, Myners has some perspective on the City’s current spot of bother. ‘On a scale of one to ten, that crisis was about two in terms of complexity compared with the nine we are at now — because the system is so much more interlinked.’

Myners has done well for the son of a Cornish fisherman turned butcher and his hairdresser wife, and he knows it. Born in 1948 and adopted by them when he was six months old, he grew up as an only child in a small terraced house in Truro. Although he insists his scholastic achievements were undistinguished, he won a scholarship to Truro school. ‘We scholarship boys were identifiable by our secondhand uniforms,’ he says wryly. But the school set him on an upwardly mobile path. Initially he trained as a teacher, taking a Bachelor of Education, but found it unexciting and financially unrewarding.

So he set his sights on the City, joining Wedd Durlacher and working on the old Stock Exchange floor. ‘I did things like putting bets on races and making sure my partner had a table in the Long Room for lunch.’ But he left, unable to see the way through to the top of a firm dominated by toffs. After a couple of years of ‘huge fun’ in journalism, he joined NM Rothschild working in Kuala Lumpur and running its Hong Kong business.

Once again, he saw the route to the top was blocked. ‘It was easier to climb up the outside of the building à la Spiderman, than the inside,’ he says — the letterheads boasted lots of Rothschilds. ‘Running the Hong Kong office had given me the taste for leading a business. When I went to Gartmore [in 1985] it was not as a fund manager but as chief executive.’ During his time, Gartmore was bought and sold four times and grew from funds under management of £1.2 billion to £75 billion when he left 17 years later.

Although Myners does not claim to have predicted the current financial meltdown, his most important government report into the City in 2001 criticised the lack of transparency and the poor management of conflicts of interest.

These days he is scathing about the financial community’s understanding of the boom times. ‘We failed to recognise that our low inflation was imported from Asia, and ignored the inflation of asset values. Alan Greenspan said it was no job of central bankers to control asset values — only to deal with the consequences. Well that is what we are doing now.’

Did he voice his dissent at the Bank of England? ‘I certainly voiced the view that things were getting out of control. It was clear that in a number of institutions the incentives were around personal gain rather than the strength of the institution.’ It is regulators, however, that receive most of his ire. ‘It would have been a good idea if the FSA regulators had spent more time in the wine bars of Canary Wharf asking themselves if it was right that people were drowning themselves in Cristal,’ he says, almost growling. ‘We chased the false god of light-touch regulation.’

But when I mention the Guardian, the sun comes out. ‘Do you know the Guardian has more readers in Chicago than in Birmingham?’ he boasts, extolling the virtues of digital publishing. Giving up that chairmanship will be the hardest wrench. Myners may have spent less than two years in journalism but it is clearly his first love and one reason he has such good rapport with journalists — handy for getting his ministerial mess
ages across. I ask how he could have headed an anti-capitalist newspaper. ‘It is not anti-capitalist,’ he retorts. ‘It is pro-responsible capitalism and the Guardian has one of the strongest balance sheets in the business.’

In another age Myners would have been a liberal philanthropist, doling out handouts to the poor while amassing treasures in his country pile. In his own country pile in Cornwall he has a unique collection of native Cornish artists from 1928, when Ben Nicholson first discovered them, to 1951, when they featured in the Festival of Britain.

‘Alison and I are going to leave most of our art to the nation,’ he declares. And with that he is off on a shopping spree to the trendy galleries of Hoxton. Whether the rigours of ministerial responsibility and red boxes will still allow time for such expeditions must be in some doubt.

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