Michael Snyder: King of the City of London

And a good job too as his new role as chair of the Corporation of London’s policy and resources committee – effectively making him one of the most important men in the UK’s financial and business centre – is a high-profile, publicly accountable one packed with a broad stretch of responsibilities.

The Corporation of London is often mistakenly considered to interest itself with just the financial wellbeing of the City of London. In fact its responsibilities extend far beyond the City boundaries.

The corporation is older than parliament itself, looking after the needs of its residents, City businesses and more than 320,000 people who work in the City every day. It is unique in that it is not only the oldest local authority in the country but also operates on a non-party political basis. Snyder’s task is to lobby government on behalf of the City, play the role of local authority in the Square Mile, determine policy and decide where the committee’s £7.3m annual budget is spent.

To do this he has to call upon all of his considerable charm, wit and skill to negotiate with national and international business chiefs, politicians and community representatives.

He is, however, no stranger to the corporation’s work. Before his election in January to chair of the policy and resources committee he was chairman of its finance committee for five years.

But increasingly Snyder is having to adapt to being in the public eye.

‘I can’t say it’s something I seek; publicity or personal publicity. But it’s something that goes with the territory to some degree. I’m content with it. I’m getting used to it,’ says Snyder. ‘Obviously one learns as one goes on with it. I’m finding that people are being generally pretty receptive, giving me an opportunity to say what I want to say, for that I’m very grateful.’

And of course he has the full support of his predecessor Dame Judith Mayhew, who remains as deputy chair of the policy committee. ‘We have always worked extremely well over the years. He is very quick at picking up a brief and good at distilling arguments and finding solutions. And of course he’s brilliant at looking at figures,’ says Mayhew.

But although he can turn on the charm when he knows it serves a purpose, he is known to be a bit of a taskmaster. ‘I have been described as a chairman that would not suffer fools gladly,’ he smiles.

Nevertheless he is already making his mark. ‘I suppose my style (of management) is that I like to work with people in a team – I don’t mean in any trite sense of the word – and share our experiences for the good of the City and for the good of London as a whole, and in its way for the country. It sounds a little pompous perhaps and I don’t mean it to sound like that,’ he says.

‘On the other hand if I ask someone to do something, I do expect it to be done and I suppose I’m not ultra sympathetic to non-performance,’ Snyder explains. ‘I seem to have struck a chord there,’ he adds, acknowledging the knowing look on the face of his press officer.

This is an observation backed by his colleagues. Peter Holgate, partner at Kingston Smith says: ‘Nothing ever stands still at KS, including Michael. He has been described as a benevolent dictator.’

But his dictatorial methods are not only reserved for others. He is no less tough on himself, Snyder says. ‘To be honest I do expect a lot of myself and I expect a lot of other people. And throughout my professional experience and again at the corporation people rise to that challenge. They really do. Then one wants to be appreciative when they do a good job and when they are successful. I have a high expectation – I suppose that would characterise my style above all else.’

But Holgate also describes him as loyal, committed and exhilarating, despite singular determination to reach his goals. Snyder’s policy responsibilities, he says, fall into three main areas: providing local authority services, maintaining the City as the world’s leading financial and business centre and overseeing the regeneration work in London.

One of his first tasks this year was to raise the supplement on the business rate to pay for part of the extension on the security zone.

A rather controversial first move, as although business leaders backed the principle, a large majority thought it should be the government that paid for the hike. ‘There were concerns about why the government, given the fact that we were raising over £530m in business rates, couldn’t leave us with a little more to make the police funding secure. I’ve got to say I agree with that view and we’ve been working extremely hard to interest the government,’ says Snyder.

But he adds that the corporation was partly successful because the government had restored the levels of police funding to levels that existed just after the first few attacks that hit London, such as the Bishopsgate bombs.

‘But they didn’t go far enough,’ says Snyder. ‘Normally we’re pretty successful in influencing the government because we always try and concentrate on the facts and the needs of the City and what drives the UK economy.’

The rate hike was, however, a crucial move. With the Iraq war not far behind us, the fear of a terrorist attack since the 11 September attacks on the US is palpable in London – one of the world’s leading financial and business centres. ‘So we thought it important to deliver what our constituents want, which is better security. Of course there’s no foolproof method of avoiding terrorism,’ Snyder acknowledges.

Security issues aside, Snyder also has to deal with the more mundane, but equally vital, side of local authority duties – upkeep of the roads, the cleansing and cable schemes. ‘When the roads are being dug up by the utility companies, we’re also laying conduits for future utilities companies to lay their cables without digging up the roads,’ he explains, indicating a much needed bit of foresight in this area, given the number of times various utility companies dig up bits of the same road, often it seems within weeks of each other.

It is also an initiative, he says, that even the Major of London Ken Livingston, amongst other local authority chiefs, might take up. It would undoubtedly be backed by most Londoners.

Work at the corporation is not all about business either. Snyder is determined to push the regenerative agenda too. He says: ‘We work with, and in, neighbouring boroughs to help regeneration and economic development. We do that through a number of measures and it involves getting firms or individuals within those areas, as part of their corporate responsibility, to get mentors and help. It’s not a one-way process, it’s not about distributing largesse.

It’s a two-way process, where we can learn from those other communities as well.

‘I think that type of thing should be encouraged and broadcast. People think companies are islands and aren’t involved in communities.’

Snyder continues to fly the flag for SMEs, too. Despite the economy’s current sluggishness he is preparing for brighter times.

‘We’ve got to have the right offices available. You might say we’re in a downturn and occupancy is low, like in Canary Wharf, and that’s true but on the other hand we’ve got to take a longer-term view and the markets will come back. And the need for these world class businesses in a world-class city will always be there. When SMEs are expanding or indeed contracting because they may win or lose contracts, they need to find premises at relatively short order and they can’t spend two or three years planning about building so they’ve got to be able to move in at relatively short notice,’ he explains.

Having worked with the SME sector for the best part of his professional career, he understands what SMEs need more than most and appears determined to provide it.

Holgate says: ‘His view is that we need to grow the firm to be more than just accountants to get the bigger mass that SMEs need.’

When not carrying out his corporation duties, Snyder specialises in business advice, negotiations on behalf of clients and financial planning as well as chairing Cheviot Capital Ltd, the stockbroking and investment management arm of his firm Kingston Smith.

How Snyder will rise to the challenge remains to be seen.

He has a solid track record and colleagues’ belief in his abilities is unquestionable. So far so good.

But there is still the burning issue of London’s cross rail transport, or lack of it, to deal with – no small feat for a chartered accountant.

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‘The Sarbanes-Oxley Act is a knee-jerk reaction in the US but fortunately this government hasn’t emulated in the same way. And I take my hat off to Patricia Hewitt for resisting that temptation. But there are pressures and I’m not widely enthusiastic about further regulation.

I recognise that in the public arena one has got to accept and react and deal with public opinion and restore confidence.

I must say that I don’t think the way it has been reported and the way the issues have been handled have been particularly helpful in getting to the truth, in other words there has been an awful lot of heat and not necessarily enough light on the subject. And that colours the very people dealing with things.

I’m really concerned we don’t let this public arena stuff, the large public companies, filter down to the SME sector, or even the large private companies and the small public ones.

I believe that their needs are fundamentally different and people need not to get carried away with this public accountability.

Clearly in any profession a privileged position must be accountable and we must be very aware of that. And the needs of the entrepreneur are wholly different from these large international public interest cases. And we must make sure regulation doesn’t feed down to the SME sector.

The clear solution to this is proportional liability and I wish the government would grasp that because if you have proportional liability the people who are perpetrating any errors would be the one that bears the lion’s share as opposed to the deepest pocket. I personally find that would be the best route. In terms of alternatives clearly capping liability is a step in the right direction. I haven’t heard it’s on the government’s agenda now, but maybe it’s because it’s embedded in our legal system and you’d have to change that.

It’s probably fairly difficult but if you wanted to get it right or fair and reasonable then they would go down that route, it seems to me. Where the culpability is, is where the liability rests.

Also I think we’ve got a lot to do in terms of capping people’s ability to attack professionals without really much justification. And then we’ve got to look at the costs of defending that.’

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