Paul Myners, Lord Myners, who has died aged 73, was fond of declaring: “I have worked in the city but never been of the City.” It was that apparent detachment that caused Myners, a successful financier who built a multibillion-pound pensions business and chaired a slew of companies, including Marks and Spencer and the Guardian Media Group, to become the go-to man for sorting out financial crises.
He helped to address the scandal at the Co-op bank, Premiership Rugby’s salary cap controversy, and problems at Nissan after Carlos Ghosn, but he was most famously brought in as financial services secretary to the Treasury by Gordon Brown to help address the 2008 banking crisis. The tough conditions he imposed for rescuing the banks were generally regarded as successful although one insider described them as “less a negotiation, more a drive-by shooting”.
However his perceived failure to demand a cut in the pension entitlement of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Fred Goodwin was attacked as evidence of double standards and targeted at an appearance before a Commons select committee.
Myners’ profile as a liberal outsider in the City was enhanced by his advocacy of social change. This included chairing the Low Pay Commission from 2006 until 2008 and his presidency of the Howard League for Penal Reform. He was scathing about prison conditions and would take guests to lunch in prisons to make his point.
Myners was adopted as a young child from an orphanage in Bath, by a Cornish couple, Thomas and Caroline Myners. While he bonded with his mother, a hairdresser, from whom he absorbed his liberal outlook, he felt he was never accepted by his father, who worked as a butcher and fisherman. He did not want to find his biological parents but said that the sense of rejection he felt and his father’s lack of interest “led to me being more driven and perhaps not good at handling rejection”. He was known as a tough businessman, with a short fuse, which could lead to trouble in board meetings.
He went to Truro school with a scholarship but at 15 there was a family confrontation when his father wanted him apprenticed at Falmouth dockyard. Instead Paul followed a friend into teacher training at the Institute of Education in London. After two years on staff at a girls’ school in Wandsworth, in 1972 he decided teaching was not for him.
Instead he wrote 20 letters to City institutions asking for a job, delivering them on his bicycle because of a postal strike. A whiff of the prevailing attitude, which he would spend a lifetime opposing, came from Hill Samuel’s reply stating that they only employed people already known to the directors. Myners accepted the only offer, from the stockjobber Wedd Durlacher. There he came to the notice of the editor of the Daily Telegraph’s stock-tipping Questor column, who proposed him as his successor two years later.
In 1974 he joined Rothschild’s as a junior portfolio manager. He was posted to Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, where at 27 he was managing an office of 40 people and was appointed to the main board.
But returning to Rothschild’s London headquarters, he missed management and in 1985 chose to become chief executive of a small pension fund manager, the Gartmore Group, where he swiftly became chair and made his name.
In his 16 years the company was bought and sold five times and funds managed rose from £1.2bn to £75bn. He was estimated to have earned £30m. He left in 2001 to focus on a series of positions in major companies, including the chairmanship of Land Securities (2006-08) and the Guardian Media Group (2000-08).
He was a surprise but effective choice at the Guardian where he set in train the sale of its highly profitable motor trade publications and declining regional newspapers to build up a specific endowment fund to support the Guardian and Observer. The decision was vindicated by the progressive collapse of remunerative classified advertising in the face of the internet. Looking back Myners said: “I thought the key thing was to build up an endowment. It meant we could lose about £30m a year and still maintain the papers.”
Alan Rusbridger, editor from 1995 until 2015, said that “the Guardian was very fortunate to have Paul as its chair as it negotiated the digital revolution, which was a traumatic period of transition for virtually all news organisations. He steered the company with astute judgement and an understanding of what the Guardian should be. He was a reliable friend to both commercial and editorial sides of the operation. We were lucky to have him.”
In 2004 he became interim chair of an embattled Marks and Spencer, just two days after Philip Green had made a bid for the company. The board resisted and Myners chaired the famous meeting at which shareholders voted to reject Green’s offer.
Myners was known as one of the busiest men in the City, and it was joked that he worked out of his car. He conceded: “I do like a challenge. It energises.”
High level appointments included the Court of the Bank of England, the Financial Reporting Council, and the Panel on Takeovers and Mergers. He chaired the Tate Gallery and was chancellor of the University of Exeter. But his chairmanship of the London School of Economics council was cut short after a boardroom row.
His trenchant views on the financial industry were sought-after and he advised a string of finance companies. His report on institutional investment for Brown in 2001 set out the Myners’ principles of best practice for pension companies although critics complained that they had not always been observed by Gartmore.
He attacked “ownerless corporations”, arguing that companies had such diversified shareholders that no one behaved like an owner. In later life he criticised activist investing by funds, arguing that passive investing produced comparable results, and revealing that he had transferred much of his wealth to them.
Active in the Lords from 2008, he was a passionate remainer and scathing about the Conservative leadership. Later, in 2014, he transferred from the Labour benches to the crossbenches.
Myners was married twice: first, from 1972 to 1993 , to Tessa Stanford-Smith, a teacher, with whom he had three daughters; and second, from 1995 to 2020, to Alison Macleod, former chair of the Contemporary Art Society, with whom he had a daughter and a son. Both marriages ended in divorce.
He is survived by his children and five grandchildren.
• Paul Myners, Lord Myners, businessman and politician, born 1 April 1948; died 16 January 2022