Paul Myners

Famous for being the M&S chairman who helped repel Philip Green's takeover bids, he is now leaving the rejuvenated retailer. A boardroom spat may have caused his departure, yet he bears no grudges. He'll miss the job, but he's a portfolio man with plenty of red-hot irons in the fire.

by Chris Blackhurst
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Paul Myners is sitting at a pavement table outside his office in London's trendy Brompton Cross. It's 3.30 on a glorious, sunny afternoon.

He's drinking a Diet Coke and puffing on a large cigar. His suit is plain charcoal-grey. His shirt is black, his top button undone. He doesn't wear a tie. In front of him is a pile of papers. He is smiling broadly: being a pluralist doesn't get any better than this.

Myners is the embodiment of a new breed of business executive, a 21st-century Renaissance Man (other leading examples are Allan Leighton and Lord Dennis Stevenson) who does a bit here and a bit there, is classless, casual in dress and manner and thoroughly modern in outlook.

The pluralist's willingness to pursue diversity lets him move easily between the public and private sectors. Governments, not used to serious, high-achieving businessmen coming their way, embrace him with alacrity.

The old Establishment, however, doesn't know how to treat him and looks on suspiciously.

The pluralist serves many companies and organisations but he's his own boss. Unclubbable and wealthy, he is not beholden to anyone and is not afraid to speak his mind. His only tools are a mobile phone, laptop and BlackBerry - and a staffed office in a desirable area. His base is where he wants it to be. In Myners' case, it's not far from his home in Chelsea.

The pluralist juggles mega-positions with ease. For Myners this means being chairman of Marks & Spencer (although as we meet, that is coming to an end); chairman of Guardian Media Group; chairman of Tate Trustees; chairman of the Low Pay Commission (advising the Government on the minimum wage level); a member of the Court of the Bank of England; a Glyndebourne trustee; director of Bank of New York and chairman of Aspen, the Bermuda reinsurer he set up in 2002, which is listed in New York.

It's an exhausting list, but Myners is unabashed: it's what he does.

'I'm a portfolio worker. I've tried to focus on real diversity in what I do. I'm on my second marriage with a young family.' He has five children, ranging in age from eight to 28. 'I've a lot of energy and I'm good at managing my time. It would be abhorrent for me to go and retire as a country squire.'

But at 58, with plenty of money in the bank after running Gartmore, the City fund manager, that is precisely what he could do. Certainly, it's what many of his City contemporaries are doing - putting their feet up, enjoying their money. Or they are intent on making even more.

'What's the same for Allan Leighton, Dennis Stevenson and myself is that we are not overwhelmingly driven by money. That allows us to do things for our inner satisfaction. I'm sure all of us could make more money if we committed ourselves to an investment bank or to a private equity group, but all three of us value diversity.'

It would be wrong to assume, though, that Myners is on a big ego trip, hoovering up plum jobs (he's looking for another one now, to fill the gap that M&S will leave in his schedule), determinedly inserting his finger in lots of pies. He has that other characteristic of the successful pluralist: he's a maverick, an original thinker, a natural moderniser, whose first instinct is always to ask why, and then: how can it be improved?

'I'm closely involved with four iconic British institutions - the Tate, Guardian Newspapers, M&S and the Court of the Bank of England,' he says, shaking his head in wonder. 'Yet I'm not a City grandee, I'm not an establishment figure.'

He may have come from an aggressive, competitive City background and his hair is closely cropped, giving him, with his broad shoulders, the appearance of a rugby player - which he was, to a high standard, as a schoolboy. But he has also got a serious, cerebral side.

It's this determination to make a difference that has put him on numerous review committees, tackling issues head-on. His views have brought him into conflict with colleagues in the business community, some of whom accuse him of being a poacher-turned-gamekeeper.

In 2001, he produced a Treasury-sponsored report on the institutional investment industry - his own trade - which didn't make for comfortable reading in his former haunts of the City bars and boardrooms. That was quickly followed by a succession of studies on making non-executive directors more effective; the opaque nature of dealing commissions; the poor governance of mutuals; and the weakening of investors' rights. None was likely to boost his rating among those who believe the old ways are the best.

His latest position, helping set the minimum wage - he succeeded Lord (Adair) Turner - is also unlikely to endear him to those in activities that traditionally employ lowly paid workers. Is he bothered? No. 'We've got a clear remit to ensure the issues of the lower paid can be acted upon in a way that isn't harmful to job creation. The Low Pay Commission is a very effective unit. Historically, low pay has centred on the care, hospitality, retail, textile and agricultural sectors. In three - care, hospitality and retail - there has been net employment creation since the minimum wage was introduced; there has been no job destruction or contraction in those three industries. In textiles and agriculture there has been contraction, but that is due to globalisation, not the minimum wage.'

He isn't, though, easily swayed by those who want to see the minimum wage raised much higher. 'Ken Livingstone says the minimum level in London should be £7 per hour. But there's no merit in pushing it up to a level that would destroy jobs.'

He and his commission members listen to the unions and the groups that push to alleviate poverty. They are, he stresses, entirely objective.

'We reach our recommendation on the basis of a monthly meeting that lasts all day. We also make visits to the world beyond London SW1. Those are terribly important - the further you go from London, the higher the proportion of people on the minimum wage. Cornwall, my own county, for instance, is a very poor part of the country.'

There are those who question how someone who is paid £500 a day for chairing the commission can possibly have any real empathy with those at the bottom of the pay ladder. Myners can't win: he's got the boss classes chuntering and muttering that he's far too generous; and he's got critics having a go at him over his own prosperity and City career.

But being stuck in the middle, able to see both sides, sits perfectly with his character. 'I have a natural curiosity, I am an outsider,' he says. He always has been. Not only is he from Cornwall, not a county known for supplying those who stalk the corridors of power, but when he was a baby he was placed in a children's home. (It's how he got his name: the home named boys after Jesus' disciples and he got Paul.)

He was adopted by a butcher father and a hairdresser mother - again an unlikely combination which presumably gave him his appearance of masculine toughness but with an aesthetic appreciation. He's careful how he looks, his offices in Michelin House - the building that also houses the Conran Shop and Bibendum restaurant - are up-to-the-minute cool, and he has a passion for the visual arts. As well as heading the Tate Trustees, he has his own modern art collection, mostly of works from the St Ives school.

He has made a point of never wishing to meet his natural parents. Some adoptees are intrigued but he can't see what would be gained.

He was a clever boy who won a state scholarship to Truro School, the local independent school. As well as playing rugby, he ran for the county.

He remains devoted to Cornwall, has a house there, visits regularly and calls it his 'true home'. He owns a yacht-building business there with schoolfriend and next-door neighbour Roger Taylor, the drummer from rock band Queen. He went to London University to study to be an economics teacher (that earnest desire to help people improve kicked in early).

His first job was teaching in a girls' secondary school in Wandsworth, south London. 'It was the largest girls' school in the country - the job was more about keeping discipline than teaching. The staffroom was full of people saying they were leaving or who'd left it too late to leave.'

He switched career, moving to the financial pages of the Daily Telegraph.

But on the Questor column he found he had no real aptitude for journalism.

'I was young and I didn't have any flair. It was like being a cook and following the Delia Smith cookbook assiduously, and not producing a great meal. I could write articles perfectly well but wasn't a distinguished writer.'

When NM Rothschild offered him the job of junior fund manager, he was off. He rose quickly through the bank, becoming its MD in Hong Kong and joining the main board. He returned to Britain in 1984 and joined Gartmore, then a small fund manager, as chief executive.

Gartmore was the making of him - but as a chief executive, not as a brilliant stock-picker. 'I'd had two years as a portfolio manager. I wasn't terribly good at it,' he says, shaking his head at the memory. Where he came into his own was as organiser and leader. He admits he was lucky: 'I came into the City at a breaking point. For the first time it was possible for a non-top public school, non-suavely spoken person to have a career that wasn't limited. Ten years previously it wouldn't have been possible for someone like me to have got out of the back office.'

He leans forward. 'You know, I've always been an outsider, but it's funny - I always knew where I was and where I was going.' He uses a football analogy. 'It's like that famous goal Maradona scored. The way he seemed to weave through but always knew where he was going - I was like that.

Gaps started emerging for me - same for Dennis (Stevenson). We pushed ourselves forward and they opened up for us.'

As well as taking Gartmore to unimagined heights in the City and through four changes of ownership (management, headed by Myners, was rewarded on each occasion, helping make him an extremely wealthy man), the other gaps that fell open for him were created by Whitehall. 'I'd always been interested in the interface between institutional share ownership and the businesses in which the shares were owned, so when Michael Heseltine, then president of the Board of Trade, asked me in 1992-93 if I would take a look, I immediately said yes.'

The result was a document, Working Partnership, Effective Dialogue, that focused on the role of the institutions as providers of capital and the fund managers as their agents, and as managers of shareholdings engaged in relationships with the companies. Myners looked at it from both sides: the fund manager's and the company's.

He found in each a lack of appreciation and understanding as to where the other side was coming from. Are things any better today? 'The quality of communication is more effective. But there's still unequal dialogue.

If anything, analysts are even less experienced, less mature.'

The short-termism of the institutions and their desire for a quick profit still annoys him. 'The weight of evidence is that time will show that traditional City institutions always sell too low. Either they sell to a purchaser who is able to extract value - just look at New Look and Debenhams - or they sell out of a business that is long-term cash-generative - look at BAA.'

The problem lies with the institutions, he says. The individual pensioner or policy-holder 'is running a marathon, but the institution sees itself as a 100-yard racer. Nobody can set out to win a marathon on the basis of winning every 100 yards, but that's how they behave.

'The pension fund trustees meet the fund manager every 90 days to discuss how they're doing; yet if it's a new client they're dealing with, their liability may not mature for another 70 years. You only need three or four 90 days of under-performance to see a serious erosion in the pension fund/fund manager relationship.'

Faced with that sort of pressure, it's no surprise, adds Myners, that 'mainstream managers hug the FTSE index. According to their business model, they're supposed to be investing in individual companies, but they don't, preferring to weight themselves in an asset class. They've got little interest in the valuation of individual companies. What they want is to play a game, where they're comfortably spread across the index and, hopefully, they can pick up little bits of outperformance here and there.'

It was this, he says, that did for BAA, recently fallen to Ferrovial of Spain. 'Does it matter that BAA might have a very nice Q3 in 2006?

No.'

The institutions could see a good gain on the shares and they sold. The madness of it, however, is that the funds are 'now saddled with the proceeds.

Will they seek out a good, solid, safe growth opportunity? No. Will they put the money in a Kazakhstan miner that has just joined the index? Yes, they'll re-invest in that.'

Myners really does care greatly about the system, really does believe there's enormous room for improvement. He was CEO of Gartmore for eight years, then spent 14 as chairman. But there's no danger of him becoming stuck in the status quo. He made a good living from it but that doesn't mean he feels it shouldn't be changed. He thinks, for instance, that hedge funds get a raw deal, that far from being the locusts they have been described as, they are 'doing what traditional investment managers should be doing - which is running portfolios with high conviction. Generally, they are discovering and driving better value.

They're not all talented, but the bad ones don't last long. The good ones are excellent.'

A current bete noir is the investment community's unquestioning regard for private equity. 'There's a cognitive dissonance about private equity - that somehow it's been a great asset class. Some have done well, but 75% of the funds provide average-to-abysmal returns.'

Nevertheless, investment managers are now putting their cash into private equity. He laughs. He knows his view isn't popular. 'What's the word to describe how I think? Edgy, I suppose.'

After Gartmore, Myners joined the boards of Celltech, Orange and Powergen.

But his main corporate directorships for some time have been M&S and Guardian Media. There's no doubting his hurt at losing M&S. He's not used to defeat.

He adored the connection with Britain's favourite store, with its customers and its staff. And, as chairman, he had developed a close rapport with Stuart Rose, the chief executive.

It was, though, this friendship that forced his departure, as last year a fellow director, Kevin Lomax, insisted greater distance was required between chairman and CEO and sought to remove Myners. After an almighty row a compro- mise was reached, with Myners staying on until this month, to be replaced by Lord (Terry) Burns.

Myners had become chairman when M&S was in crisis, with Philip Green contemplating a takeover bid. It's true that the proper selection process wasn't gone through, but he nevertheless saw off Green (much to the retail billionaire's fury, who reserved most of his venom during those heated months for Myners). Feelings ran deep when Lomax made his move, but Myners stresses: 'It's not true that Kevin Lomax and Paul Myners can't be in the same room.' Myners, though, resents any suggestion that his closeness to Rose stopped him from being an effective chairman.

He's typically forthright about what the job of chairman entails - and his record at M&S. 'The chairman shouldn't interfere in the day-to-day management of the business. He should be a mentor to the chief executive.

He should be available for conversations the chief executive can't easily hold with other people in the company. All chief executives, however good they are, have moments of doubt as well as inspiration, and the chairman should be available for those.'

When a chairman leaves, he says, he should ask three questions. 'Has the company ended up stronger than before I took the chair? Is the board in better shape? Am I handing over to someone of value, who can create a good relationship with the CEO?' To all of them, where his leaving M&S is concerned, he says the answer is an emphatic yes.

It's interesting to speculate what might have become of M&S had Green's bid succeeded. It's hard to imagine two more different businesspeople than Myners and Green. In some ways, they are similar - neither born with a silver spoon, both having to force their way to success, each immensely driven. But in terms of giving up large amounts of time for charities and the arts, of pursuing long-term goals for the benefit of others, they are poles apart. Green's amassing of billions is anathema to Myners.

Similarly, whereas M&S, with its history of benevolence and philanthropy, is ideally suited to Myners, the store group is an unlikely home for Green - unless, of course, he was going to ride roughshod over tradition. It was the knowledge that Green was likely to change the M&S form and culture beyond all recognition that galvanised Myners. 'It wasn't personal,' he insists. 'I barely knew him before the bid and I've had perfectly cordial contact with him afterwards.' Nevertheless, faced with another chairman, Green might have been able to pull it off.

Myners is departing with his head high. He is disappointed not to be continuing to work with Rose, whom he much admires. 'We had a clear understanding of what his job was, and what my job was. Whenever we went to dinner we would scribble 10 key points we wanted to deal with on a piece of paper or on the back of the menu.

Always, eight items would be common to both lists. That says it all - but how can that be bad?'

It's important, he says, that the chairman doesn't have an emotional commitment to the business. 'I don't feel they should say: "I'd rather die than see someone else own it."'

His voice tails off. Yes, he may not have an emotional commitment, but does he feel the emotional impact now that he's departing M&S? His face softens. 'Yes. I'm going earlier than I would have liked. I chaired that company during the Philip Green bid. Also, what's not widely known is that I've taken little out of it - if you look in the last annual report, it says clearly: "Paul Myners asked for his salary (of £200,000) not to be reviewed."'

He has regrets about going, but it's too late to change. 'Stuart Rose was urging me to stay. The prospect of remaining did become more attractive - but by then Kevin Lomax had determined change was good because he perceived that Stuart and I were locked together...'

He loved chairing M&S, but it's over. Soon, another chair will come along - the pluralist doesn't stay single for long. It's to be hoped, for their sakes, the board is made of stern stuff. If not, Myners will find them out. He'll make it his business to do so - they can count on it.

FOUR CHALLENGES FACING MYNERS

1. To find another senior job he'll enjoy as much as chairing M&S

2. To grow Guardian Media Group in the face of ever-tougher competition and technological change

3. To convince sections of the business community that a higher minimum wage won't destroy jobs and profits

4. To keep pushing for radical change in the relationship between institutional shareholders and the firms in which they own shares.

MYNERS IN A MINUTE

1948: Born 1 April. Educated Truro School, Cornwall; Institute of Education

1970: Worked as schoolteacher, then joined Questor column, Daily Telegraph

1974: Moved to NM Rothschild, working in HK

1985: Became CEO of Gartmore, then chairman

2001: Went plural, later becoming chairman, Guardian Media Group; interim chairman, M&S; chairman, Tate Gallery Trustees; and a member of the Court of Bank of England. He wrote various government-backed studies on the City

2006: Made chairman of the Low Pay Commission; resigned from M&S.

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