Paul Myners: Man with a plan

The busiest executive in the City, he is the person Gordon Brown turned to rescue the British economy

The day that Gordon Brown decided upon his £400bn plan to rescue Britain's banks the workaholic Prime Minister, uncharacteristically, left the Treasury around 10pm. Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, stayed up until 1.45am until the broad outlines of the package had been agreed with the senior bankers, who left around 2am.

But the man who did not go to bed at all, working right through the night on the details of the plan so it could be announced before the London markets opened, was someone unknown to most of the public. He was Paul Myners, the former Marks & Spencer chairman, who had undergone a baptism of fire in the few hours since he was appointed Treasury minister responsible for the City in last weekend's reshuffle.

Myners is a man "who has to understand the detail before he can make his judgement", according to the chief executive of one of his many companies, who asked not to be named. There is not much danger of that insider's identity being revealed from such a description for Paul Myners, who is one of the busiest corporate figures in British industry. He is chairman of Land Securities Group, Britain's biggest quoted property company, and of GLG Partners, a hedge fund which is one of the largest alternative asset managers in the world.

Among his other companies or associations, past and present, are Aspen (a reinsurance company), Ermitage (another hedge fund), Celltech, Orange, Powergen, O2, the Guardian Media Group, Bridgepoint, Coutts, NatWest, Lloyd's Market Board, IMRO, Bank of New York and the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore. He was also till recently the chairman of the Tate Gallery, a trustee of Glyndebourne, a director of the Bank of England, and more. It wears you out just reading the list.

With such a portfolio controversy is inevitable. One of the new minister's companies, GLG, quite legally made big profits by "selling short" tens of millions of shares in Bradford & Bingley before the practice was banned by the Financial Services Authority and the bank was nationalised last month. Tory backbenchers, those scourges of the City, were outraged. The appointment of Mr Myners "beggared belief, said the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, adding that "Gordon Brown's hypocrisy knows no bounds".

Those who know the man at the centre of that fury are more sanguine. Paul Myners, for all his financial ubiquity, is far from a man steeped in privilege. Indeed his beginnings were as humble as can be imagined since his mother gave him away at birth and he spent the first three years of his life in a children's home in Cornwall. At the age of three he was adopted by a Truro butcher whose wife was a hairdresser. But he was a clever boy who won a state scholarship to the best independent school in the area where he played rugby and ran for the county. That childhood gave him a lot.

He had a slight false start in the adult world. At London University he got a first class degree in Education but soon realised that he was not a teacher. He charmed his way, over a lunch, on to the Questor column on the financial pages of The Daily Telegraph but realised that observing the actions of others was not his forte. So when one of his contacts at NM Rothschild offered him a job as a junior fund manager he took it. He rose swiftly through the investment bank becoming its key manager in Hong Kong, where he formed long-lasting friendships; people from that period of his life were at his recent 60th birthday party at Tate Modern. After returning to Britain in 1984 he joined the fund manager Gartmore, becoming its chief executive. It was the start of a brilliant career. Under his 15-year stewardship Gartmore's funds rocketed from £1.2bn in 1985 to £75bn in 2001, building a successful hedge fund arm.

But then a major change came. "I retired from executive employment," as he later put it. Instead of concentrating on one job he began to act as a non-executive director and chairman.

"But none of them are paper directorships," said another of the chief executives of the many companies he chaired. "When Paul gets involved he gets seriously involved. He really tightened-up the way we do things. And he creates an environment in which adventurous things can happen."

How he does so much is bewildering to many. "Just getting to see Paul was a major logistical exercise," said Sir Stuart Rose, who was chief executive of Marks & Spencer when Myners was chairman. He works out of his chauffeur-driven car, which costs £110,000 a year to run, though he has his own private office near his home in Chelsea.

"He is very organised with his time," says another of his senior employees. "He prints off all his emails and scribbles on them in the back of the car. Or uses his Blackberry. He reads prodigiously and extraordinarily keeps abreast of everything he does." He carries collections of papers around in plastic bags and takes five minute breaks in board meetings so that he can go outside to puff on his large cigars and take endless mobile phone calls from his other companies."

"He's a lighthouse beam that shines on you only from time to time but when it does it's with 100 per cent concentration," says a former employee. (In fact, Myners has resigned from all his posts to avoid clash of interest with his government role.)

"Sometimes he'll not say much in a meeting," said another. "He'll just take notes but then he'll make an intervention which is unbelievably acute. He's savagely clear, like a laser. You wouldn't want to be on the wrong side. You felt he could pounce and destroy you."

Yet if most of his boardroom battled have been unbloody they have demonstrated ruthlessness. When he parachuted into M&S in 2004 sales had fallen every quarter that year. Before long every executive director had been axed or quit but at the same time Myners managed to head off a takeover by the retail billionaire Sir Philip Green.

Myners won the battle with Sir Philip but failed to keep all his board onside and was forced to step down. The M&S board member who forced his departure, on the grounds that he had grown too close to Rose, went soon after too.

"Paul operates on quite an instinctive basis," one senior executive said. "He's very decisive in his views on individuals. He either likes them or doesn't." He likes those he feels have a clear vision. "If your vision coincides with his, he's the most fantastic chairman – supportive, strategic, wise but he doesn't interfere with management functions. And he has a great sense of humour, black and mischievous."

He may need that in the months ahead. The precedents for successful businessmen moving into government as not happy. Their direct dynamism often clashes with the constant politicking of both Westminster and Whitehall. But Myners is not a complete novice. He first undertook work for government under Michael Heseltine, the Tory president of the Board of Trade, in 1992. When Gordon Brown was Chancellor he chaired several reviews for the Treasury.

These have not shied away from controversy. His review of the UK investment industry was a bombshell to many of his former colleagues – he spilled the beans on the secretive commercial relationships between stockbrokers and fund managers. "He's one of us," a Labour cabinet insider says, "for a City grandee he has a genuine instinct for social justice." Nor has he been afraid to embrace the politics. Last year he gave £12,700 to Brown's leadership campaign. Recently he has excoriated David Cameron and George Osborne as "the arrogant, superior young toffs who lead the Conservative Party, neither of whom have done a serious day's work in their life... David Cameron was executive at Carlton Television, which lost over a billion pounds while he was there."

Paul Myners, it seems, knows more about politics than most businessmen.

"In an economic war cabinet he'll do well," said one former colleague, "because he'll dynamically cut through the bullshit and red tape. It's when we return to normal politics that he'll become frustrated." The director of another of his former companies concurs: "He loves a challenge, he loves a fight. He loves getting stuck in." In the current climate he should have plenty of chance to do that.

A life in brief

Born: 1 April 1948

Early life: Adopted by a butcher and his wife, he grew up as an only child in Truro. He won a scholarship to attend Truro School, then went on to study education at the University of London. Graduated with a first class degree and taught in inner London for two years – but then decided that it was a mistake and left the profession.

Career: Moved on to work as a financial journalist at The Daily Telegraph. In 1974 he left for investment bank N M Rothschild & Sons, where he stayed for 11 years. He then joined pension fund manager Gartmore, was appointed chairman two years later and stayed there until 2001. After retiring from executive employment he took on directorship and chairmanship roles at a number of companies, including the Guardian Media Group, Marks & Spencer, and the Tate. He was appointed Minister for the City last week.

Family: Married to Alison, chairman of the Contemporary Art Society. He has four daughters and a son through two marriages, and lives in London and Cornwall.

He says: "I have worked in the City but never been of the City."

They say: "I think because Paul is classless he is seen to be accessible by people from a wide range of backgrounds. And he has a very sure touch." Sir Howard Davies, trustee of the Tate Gallery.

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