There aren’t many people who go around publicly defending bankers these days, but for the Lord Mayor it’s all part of the job.
Mike Bear has taken a year out from his day jobs - regeneration director of Hammerson and a non-executive director of Arup - to be the ambassador for the City of London’s financial and business services. He is the first person with an engineering and construction background to hold the post for decades.
“My priority is to promote a better understanding of what the City provides for the nation, because I think there’s been a bit of a disconnect.
“There’s been a narrow focus on remuneration, bonuses, on the behaviour of a small number of bankers. And I think the populace has lost sight of the fact that we are a major engine of growth and wealth for the nation,” he says.
The role, combined with his professional background, means Mr Bear is not only gearing up for a year of selling the City at home and abroad, but is in a unique position to lobby on behalf of the construction sector.
He drops into the conversation that just the other day he was talking to Mark Hoban, the financial secretary to the Treasury, about the need for the UK to have greater influence in Europe’s institutions. Or, as he puts it to make it “more cool for people to go and work in”.
And it doesn’t stop there. Three weeks before our interview, he says, he “made the point” to David Cameron “that infrastructure pays for itself”.
He cited the ratio that every pound spent on an infrastructure project produced £2.84, of which 92 per cent is spent in the UK. “And I think that resonated with the Prime Minister,” he says.
His experience of the industry means he brings something new to the role of ambassador, he says. “I come from the demand side of financial services. When we build things there’s not a service that we haven’t used,” he says.
“We fund things, we insure things, we have to manage, we swap our currencies and hedge our risks, so it’s coming from a different side of the same industry, which gives me a different perspective as a customer.”
It also sheds additional light on his comments about bankers. He’s here to promote their services and doesn’t want the actions of a few to taint the whole City, but he also takes a broader perspective.
“The business philosophy of us engineers is that reward follows quality, not the other way around. And I think that’s something we just need to imprint back into the way the City looks at what it does and what it provides,” he says.
“I think it may have lost its way a little bit in terms of the philosophy that reward was an end in itself. So that’s really what I’d like to instil, and also an appreciation of the importance of infrastructure and of the built environment.”
Mr Bear still meets regularly his professional peers. “What is really interesting is picking up their view of how we can bootstrap the construction industry.
“The agenda I’ll be carrying is we’ve got to find better ways for private money to take over from public funds because of the cuts. And I’ll be lobbying government to create the right business environment for that to happen.”
In particular, he says, he’d like the government to look at how it could incentivise pension and other private funds to put their money into long-term projects.
That’s about innovation, he says, which we are good at in this country. “It might be an infrastructure bond, a green bond… I think it will have to come with some sort of incentive.”
But the construction industry has to do its bit, he says. Although he’s confident the market is on the up, the sector must also have confidence to sell itself.
“My message is that we have the best engineers, designers and project managers, contractors, in the world. We are open for business. And we have to do what we used to do a long time ago, which is to actually go out and get the business,” he says.
Construction companies need to nurture their best talent, too. “We need to make sure that the industry attracts new graduates, that they are mentored and looked after and they don’t all go into other industries where they pay a bit more,” he says.