The new lord of London
Civil servant, banker and the man who saved Canary Wharf, Lord Levene now faces the challenge of standing up for the Square Mile
Sunday 13 September 1998
"It's so professional, so tremendously efficient," he says.
Lord Levene, ne Peter Levene, Lord Mayor in waiting, might have made a very good soldier. Although he comes across as warm and down-to-earth, he is also extremely businesslike and you get the impression he doesn't suffer fools gladly. Turning chaos into order has been the hallmark of most of a varied career that has swung from defence to property to banking.
For those who didn't know or have forgotten, Lord Levene was the man who turned around the fortunes of Canary Wharf in the early Nineties. At that time, the infant development was being savaged by the economic slump and poor transport links and was beginning to look like the biggest white elephant the country had ever known.
He was also the defence contractor who, in his words, turned "from poacher to gamekeeper" when the then Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Heseltine, called him in to become the Government's chief arms procurer in 1985. During the six years he was there, he turned the department round so that it was no longer seen as a "soft touch" for British arms contractors like British Aerospace who suddenly found themselves having to compete fiercely for tenders.
After an election that is essentially a formality, Lord Levene will become Lord Mayor at the end of the month. He will take over the post at an interesting time. It will be the last year before London elects a mayor to run the capital.
"Whoever gets the job will have a lot of other things to worry about, apart from the City, and not least transport. I would be surprised if whoever gets the job as mayor of London doesn't take the view towards the City that: `If it ain't broke don't fix it.' I just don't see a problem."
He says he wants to change the image of the Lord Mayor "as just a ceremonial figure riding around in his gold carriage at the Lord Mayor's show".
"Whilst the pomp and ceremony plays a role, it is really just the top dressing, like the State opening of Parliament. It is a serious job - to promote the financial services industry in this country around the world," he says.
His appointment as chairman of Bankers Trust, with responsibility for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, should help him keep his finger firmly on the pulse as well as giving him something to fall back on after his stint as Lord Mayor, which carries no remuneration. "In fact it will cost me quite a lot," he says.
It will also probably entail a lot of hard work. 1998 will be the most important year since the Big Bang for the City as the rest of continental Europe locks itself into the single currency. "It's very important to let the world know that even though Britain will not be a member, London remains the biggest international financial centre," he says.
The job at Bankers Trust, based in Broadgate, means Lord Levene will have to leave his current post as senior advisor at Merrill Lynch in Canary Wharf.
The City suspects the combination of new job and new post means he will promote the Square Mile at the expense of the new financial centre at Canary Wharf, which has landed most of the new headquarter construction projects for big banks like HSBC and Citibank.
Lord Levene dismisses the notion of any rivalry. "Of course the financial centre has always been the City and always will be. But if you didn't have all this new space available, what would happen? It's a question of supply and demand - the price of property would go up and up in the City until it reached such a level that international banks would start to question whether it was worth making their international headquarters here - in that sense Canary Wharf is a relief valve."
In fact, Lord Levene is one of the best friends Canary Wharf ever had. He joined the property company that runs it, Canary Wharf Ltd, after a stint as chairman of the Docklands Light Railway. At that time no one wanted to come to the almost empty tower on the little-known Isle of Dogs.
"The stories of company chairmen of large companies coming down to have a look and getting stuck in traffic and after an hour saying, `to hell with this - I never want to see the place again,' were absolutely true," says Lord Levene.
He managed to fill the empty office space, as one former aide put it, "by getting people to come and at least see the place".
Lord Levene is more modest. "By the time I came to Canary Wharf, the DLR was running and the Limehouse Link [an underground road to Canary Wharf] was built. The trouble was one of perception at that time. I came down to see what was wrong with it and decided nothing was."
He is equally enthusiastic about the development that is taking place around the Millennium Dome in Greenwich. Despite being head of defence procurement in Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government, and an advisor on efficiency and effectiveness to John Major, he says he was quite chuffed when the current Labour Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, asked him to become an advisor on transport links to the Dome, in particular the London Underground's Jubilee Line extension. Indeed he is careful to avoid having "a party label attached" and sits on the cross-party bench in the House of Lords.
Lord Levene has nevertheless come up against controversy in his time. When, aged 43, he left United Scientific - the publicly floated defence manufacturer he had headed since the age of 26 - to join the MoD, there were accusations (later judged unfounded by the Commons Defence Committee) of impropriety. His pounds 95,000 salary at the time caused resentment among other civil servants. "It was more than a Cabinet minister, but a lot less than the private sector," he says.
The Westland helicopter scandal - which led to Heseltine's resignation from Thatcher's government - blew up when Lord Levene was at the MoD. It was due more to "bureaucratic bungling" than anything else, he says.
For two years Lord Levene chaired the Nato committee of international arms procurers. "It was a very good lesson in international diplomacy."
Unlike many of his predecessors as Lord Mayor, Lord Levene is a Londoner. He was born in Pinner and grew up in Hendon before moving to his present home in Regent's Park.
He was educated at the City of London School at Blackfriars and used to take the Tube every day as a schoolboy. Apart from French, he also speaks Italian, German and some Hebrew and has a house on Sea Island off the coast of Georgia, in the US. Residents there will be sending a float to November's Lord Mayor's Show.
He recently became a grandfather for the first time. The proud father, his eldest son, works for Goldman Sachs in New York; his daughter, Nicole, is head of public relations for EuroDisney. His youngest son, Tim, 25, is showing entrepreneurial aspirations and plans to open a US-style juice bar business in Britain. "He wanted to start immediately with a chain but I advised him to start with one first." And where will that be? "Beneath the DLR station at Canary Wharf."
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