Peter Levene (Class of 1960)

Lord Levene of Portsoken – Peter Levene – has been associated with City of London School for nearly 70 years. He joined as a pupil in 1951 and stood down from his role as a Governor this February, after 37 years’ service. In between, he became one of the most high-profile and highly regarded figures in British public life.

Having built the small company he joined after Manchester University into an international defence supplier, Peter Levene was invited by the then-Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Heseltine, to act as his personal advisor, in 1981. His work as Chief of Defence Procurement from 1985-91 was acknowledged to have saved the taxpayer billions of pounds and led to his serving as Advisor on Efficiency to John Major throughout his tenure as Prime Minister (1992-97).

As chairman of Docklands Light Railway, Canary Wharf Ltd and, later, Lloyd’s of London, Lord Levene piloted troubled major organisations back onto a successful path. His reputation as a fixer is reflected in the title of his memoir, ‘Send for Levene’, published in 2018.

Peter Levene was made a life peer in 1997 and served as Lord Mayor of London for the year 1998-99. He continues to serve as chairman of the insurance company Starr and is non-executive director of several companies including Haymarket publishing and China Construction Bank. His son, Tim, is Chair of the City of London School Board of Governors.

Having just retired as a Governor of the School, maybe you could select one of the achievements you have been most pleased with during your tenure?

The bursary scheme is extraordinary, I think. It’s been a huge success and we are all hopeful it will continue to grow. A lot of children have come through it who would never have been able to come to the School otherwise.

The current Head, Alan Bird, was an excellent choice and very supportive of the bursary scheme. At the retirement dinner the School gave for me the other night, both my sons were there and we three agreed that we would give a bursary between us. It’s just a case of encouraging more people to support it and it’s wonderful how many Old Citizens are joining the appeal each year.

What did you get out of being a pupil at CLS yourself that has helped you in later life?

A whole collection of things: learning to speak French properly has been a huge benefit to me. Not just learning the words but learning to speak it like a Frenchman.

Geoffrey Clark, one of the English teachers, taught me to speak properly. He made us stand at the far end of the old school hall and wouldn’t be satisfied until he could understand what we were saying while standing at the other end!

Another surprising thing for me was the CCF – it was compulsory and I never thought it would be of any use to me in later life.  But as an adult, I suddenly found myself in the defence industry and a lot of what I had taken from the CCF suddenly became very relevant. Nobody, least of all me, would have imagined that years later I would be a four-star officer –the equivalent of a general – at the MoD, running defence procurement.

The only time after I left school that I ended up in uniform again was when I was the Honorary Colonel Commandant of the Royal Logistic Corps and I went with them to the Balkans just at the end of the fighting there. So that was a strange echo of something unexpected from my schooldays.

Can you tell us about the teachers at CLS when you were a pupil? Many of them must have been in the War…

I started there in 1951. We only found out later what terrible things some of the masters had been through in the War; some of them were maybe almost shell-shocked.

Patrick Whitmore was a tank commander in the Battle of the Bulge. Cyril Bond was a colonel during the war, fought all the way through. Our German teacher Harry Law Robertson had been such an expert on German and Germany that he had been recruited to Bletchley Park. These were impressive people.

What about your French teacher Nicky Field? In your book, you describe him as the most eccentric person you ever met…

We’d think he was insane but we realised later he was brilliant. He had this amazing way with phonetics and grammar: he had boards all the way round the classroom with different phonetic sounds he had given strange names to. We never forgot the things he told us. In English, we say to a group of boys, ‘Put on your caps’ so Nicky showed us a drawing of a boy with 50 caps on his head. In French, you say to the group, ‘Put on your cap’- so he showed us a drawing of 50 boys with one giant cap. And you didn’t forget that. It was simple but brilliant.

What extra-curricular activities did you enjoy at school?

I found I could run fast. I got into the athletics team and eventually I captained it – and then captained the athletics team at Manchester University and we won the British Universities championship. I wasn’t the greatest athlete but I was very good at organising the team. We had five Olympians in the team.

How does captaining an athletics team work?

Persuading everyone to turn up is the main thing!

What was your speciality?

100m. My best time was 10.4 or 10.5. Fast but not in the very top league

What would amaze current pupils about the School in the 1950s?

We had fireplaces and inkwells in the classroom – inkwell monitors had to fill up the inkwells with powder and water and mix the ink! It sounds like something out of Dickens.

So, everyone was covered in ink?

Yes, and if you were the fireplace monitor, you had to keep it stocked with coal. And the further away from the fireplace you were, it became really jolly cold. I remember the year they installed central heating, which was amazing!

But one big difference from when I was there is that today there are so many staff working in pastoral care roles, alongside the teachers. So, any bullying is dealt with. And any difficulty pupils have at home – and that can be a big issue, whatever background you are from – the school deals with it. Which is hugely important and a very big change. It’s not unique to City – I think all schools take that responsibility seriously now.

You seem to have got your first job, at an Army surplus store, quite randomly but it led you through to all your subsequent achievements…

Yes, and all for random reasons. After University, I hadn’t the faintest idea what I was going to do. I thought of getting a job as a van driver. But then I had an introduction through my wife’s father to a man who had an army surplus business in Tottenham Court Road. Then it went on from there. And 21 years later, I had built up that business to something quite large, with 5000 employees in three continents, selling defence equipment all over the world.

And then I got a phone call out of the blue to go and meet [then Secretary of State for Defence] Michael Heseltine, inviting me to go and work for the Government. After that, I found myself chairing the DLR and then Canary Wharf and then almost by accident I was at Deutsche Bank - which I did not enjoy - and then a friend of mine asked if I would be interested to be considered as the next Chairman of Lloyd’s of London, even though I didn’t know anything about insurance. All these things were fairly random!

Was there something that all these disparate jobs had in common?

Yes, they were large businesses that had got into trouble. DLR, Canary Wharf – and before that MoD procurement, which was huge and in trouble. Then Lloyd’s which was also in a mess. So the unifying factor was taking something that had somehow lost a previously good name and persuading people that they were back out of trouble. It takes years to build a good reputation and about 24 hours to lose it.

One observer said your skill was to make order from chaos?

That’s reasonable.

What personal qualities helped you do that? Did you have them all the time, from schooldays?

No, they evolved. The ability to look at things of which I had no direct experience and to drill down and find the real issues and work out how to deal with them.

Does coming into an organisation as a complete outsider help provide a clarity of vision?

I think that helps. I mean, when I went to Lloyd’s, which was 300 years old, they had never – unsurprisingly – had anyone as chairman who hadn’t spent his whole life in insurance. I told them I didn’t know anything about insurance and they said, ‘That’s not the problem – the problem is no-one believes in Lloyd’s of London anymore’.

The best example of turning something round was Canary Wharf. They had built the largest office development in the country and it was largely empty. People thought it was impossible to get to. The DLR kept breaking down and the Jubilee line and the Limehouse Link road tunnel weren’t finished.

By the time I got there the tunnel was fixed and we’d fixed the railway but the negative perception was still there. I got in Tim Bell [PR guru] and he said we needed to get two groups on side: CEOs’ assistants and taxi drivers. So we ran ads on tube stations and threw a huge tea party for all the taxi drivers – after which they all thought Canary Wharf was amazing and that gave us a lot of positive word-of-mouth.

I used similar tactics at Lloyd’s. I organised a whole series of lunches – I had my own private dining room there – and started telling people about what we were doing and they’d say, ‘But we thought you were about to close down.’ So getting the message across is very important.

How long does it take you to get across a new portfolio? Do you have an instinct of what will be required on day one?

You’ve got to talk to people who work there and the people they are supposed to be selling to. I suppose it takes a year to understand a problem and two years before you are well onto a solution. The solutions are never obvious. It does take a long time.

What about the change in scale of going from your own business to these huge public bodies like the MoD. Does the extra responsibility make it harder to play your natural game?

When I left my company, United Scientific, we had employed around 5,000 people. At the MoD I had 35,000 people working for me.

It was very daunting. I was quite young when I joined the MoD – about 42 - and I had all these senior officers reporting to me. Going from industry to work for the government as a Permanent Secretary… No-one had ever done that: you usually had to work your way up. I shocked myself in how much authority I had and how much people trusted me. I thought, ‘Blimey, I’d better get this right’.

Who was someone who you saw as a role model or mentor – and someone whose methods you definitely decided not to copy?

Michael Heseltine had built up a very large publishing business before he went into politics. He understood business. He called me in because he said he didn’t know about defence but he had the idea the MoD was being taken for a ride by the defence industry. He asked me – as someone in the business - if his instincts were right and I told him they were. He took a risk trusting me – and when there was a commercial issue he knew what I was talking about because he’d seen it all before. So he was very helpful.

On the other hand, my first boss was a very strange man. After the War the government was selling off ex-military supplies for pennies – binoculars, watches, telescopes. So he bought this stuff up and sold it on. But then he started getting strange foreigners coming in wanting to buy hundreds of the things. He realised that the British military’s obsolete equipment was worth a fortune to foreign governments.

But he was paranoid, and he didn’t trust anybody, least of all me. I had a rough time with him. He was a brilliant man; he built up a great business, but he was a pretty unpleasant character, and I didn’t want to behave like he did.

One observer credits your work at the Ministry of Defence with helping to bring about the end of the Cold War…

That’s very flattering.

Can you give us an idea of what it’s like being inside the government at a time of international crisis?

Well, the situation in Ukraine is nothing like anything we had to deal with. I was there during the Gulf War and just after the Falklands War. But those were nothing like we have here. We didn’t have towns being destroyed. The closest thing we had that was ongoing while I was there was maybe the IRA. But in terms of what’s happening in Ukraine, that was not comparable.

What qualities would a teenager need to follow in your footsteps?

Get a very good education and do the best you can – but also get as much outside experience as you can. If two people applied for a job who were equal and one had been to business school and the other one had had five years’ working experience – I would take the one with work experience every day.

What was your own first experience of work?

I had two – a summer job at Unilever in the information and statistics department and then the following year a similar job at Courtaulds. They were both very interesting but they taught me that I didn’t want to work in a big organisation. At Unilever, I was off for a couple of days and when I came back, they seemed not to have noticed that I hadn’t been there! I realised I didn’t want to work somewhere where what I did was irrelevant!