New Lord Mayor bears up well to big-city role

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 January, 2011, 12:00am

When London Lord Mayor Michael Bear first arrived in the British capital with his girlfriend Barbara in 1978, he had only GBP200 in his pocket.

He had two choices - either to buy a bed or a piano for his girlfriend. 'The piano won. I slept on the floor the whole first year in London,' he says with a laugh, recalling his life as a young engineering graduate from South Africa. Barbara later became his wife. The couple, who met at university, decided London was a better place for the future so they decided to stay put.

They have come a long way since those hard times. Bear is now director of several consultancy and construction companies and is actively involved in charity and public duties. The 57-year-old was elected Lord Mayor of the City of London in November last year, a role that will require him to take a year-long sabbatical from corporate life to promote the city around the world.

The piano was the first piece of furniture to move into Mansion House, the traditional home of the Lord Mayor. He and his wife, a musician and sculptor, have two children: Amy, 23, and Marc, 20.

Born in Kenya, he travelled with his geologist father around the world and was educated in Cyprus, England and South Africa. 'I was brought up everywhere. I am a global bear,' he says.

After studying civil engineering, he went on to a successful career building transport facilities such as airports and ports around the world. It was this profession that brought him to China and Hong Kong in the 1980s to take advantage of growing infrastructure demands in this part of the world. The 1987 market crash forced him to focus back on London.

He started his community work when his company was tasked with a redevelopment project in the Spitalfields district of the city in 2000. The area had a jobless rate of 30 per cent.

After consulting the local community, he helped people set up small stalls, shops and restaurants to create 3,000 jobs. The area has since become a popular tourist attraction. The experience made him a big believer in the value of community and small and medium-sized enterprises. In 2003, he accepted an invitation from residents to stand as their representative in the local council. After taking various public roles, he was elected to Lord Mayor of London.

Bear is chief executive of consultancy firm Spitalfields Development Group, managing director of construction company Balfour Beatty Property and a non-executive director of Arup. The Lord Mayor's job is a 12-month role that requires him to travel the world for at least 90 days on behalf of the city.

It has not been an easy task to promote London in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, which has seen the government tighten its budget substantially. London also faces competition from New York, Hong Kong and Shanghai as a fund-raising centre for listed companies.

But Bear is still confident. 'There are three Cs required to be successful. The first is commodities, which London does not have. The second is cash, which China has, but not London. The third is creative, which London does have,' he says.

What are your goals as Lord Mayor over the next year?

Promoting financial and business services in London to the world. I also want the world to understand the benefit of doing business in London. The financial crisis has led to a lot of misunderstanding. The financial sector represents 10 per cent of our gross domestic product. I want everyone to understand the strengthening of the financial sectors in London.

Do you think it will be hard to sell London to investors because of the bank rescues by the government during the financial crisis?

Only a small number of banks needed to be bailed out by the government. In fact, we have 256 banks in Britain. Among them, big players such as Standard Chartered, HSBC and Barclays did not have any problems and were doing well even when the crisis hit. This shows our banks and financial institutions can cope with a crisis.

The British government had to carry out a number of reforms after the financial crisis, including tax increases and more regulation. Will that drive away talent and investors?

Proper regulation is how we can protect and attract investors. London is a good place to do business as it has a good regulatory framework and a deep pool of talent in all professions. What we need to do is to make sure other markets also have proper regulations so as to prevent regulatory arbitrage. I am optimistic our reforms will benefit long-term growth for London.

The government is proposing to change the Financial Services Authority (FSA). Do you agree and how will this affect people who want to invest in London?

The FSA has too many interfaces. The proposal to put banking regulation with the Bank of England is in the right direction. We need to make sure our regulatory structure matches new development trends.

Do you worry about competition with New York, Shanghai or Hong Kong?

We are facing a lot of competition, but then, if we can make the pie bigger, everyone will be able to share a bigger piece of the pie. As such, the key issue is how to make the pie bigger.

How has China changed since your earlier days there?

When I first visited China in the 1980s, there were only two international hotels there. It was in the early stage of development. Now it has come a long way. What has happened in China since 1978 is remarkable. For the next step, we would like to see more opening up in the financial sector so that our companies can have more business co-operation and investment opportunities in China.

Hong Kong is keen to develop its offshore yuan business. London has a strong offshore US dollar market. Do you also want to develop yuan business in London?

We have a lot of experience in US offshore trading centres to share with Hong Kong officials. We have experience in issuance of US, euro or Japanese bonds in London. Yuan products can also be issued in London through lenders such as Standard Chartered and HSBC. The yuan market will become very big over the long term and there will be more than one trading centre for it ... just like the US dollar.

Do you think the Chinese market is overheating?

China has a lot of cash so many people want to buy properties. It needs proper regulation and control or it will become an asset bubble.

How do you balance your family life or hobbies with your work?

My two children are very independent but I still try to spend time with them. We are a very close family. I like tennis, scuba diving, concerts and theatre, which is why I like to live in London, but I do not have much time for these.

You chose children's education as your Lord Mayor's charity appeal. Why?

I contribute a lot of time to children-related charities. I have children and I always tried to give them the best education and other support. I want other children to receive the same. One of my charity appeals involves selling teddy bears to raise funds, as that is related to my family name. This is why you see so many bears in my office - they are for charity.

The British government is cutting funding for university education. Won't that hurt youngsters going through university?

The government funding cut is a political move. We need to make sure we have enough people to go through university educations but someone has to pay for it. I raised ? million (HK$12.3 million) in my charity appeal to help youngsters go to university and I want to continue to do more. I would like to lobby for more help for disadvantaged students to finish their university studies.

What were you doing 10 years ago and what do you think you will doing in 10 years?

Ten years ago, I was doing the Spitalfields project. Now, I am the Lord Mayor promoting London, a role I like a lot. After I retire as Lord Mayor, I will look for other roles to promote London and I hope I will still be doing that in 10 years' time.