IT IS fitting that new trade minister Lord Stephen Green, who is ordained in the Church of England, should make his first foreign trip to an event that inspires an almost religious fervour amongst its followers.
Sitting at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, surrounded by the giants of the telecoms world, the former HSBC chairman tells me it is innovation in industries like this that can drive the UK’s recovery.
He is at pains to avoid taking about banking (each time the “b word” is mentioned the UK Trade & Investment PR accompanying him squirms uncomfortably by my side). “I’m just a retired banker”, he tells me. “I don’t have anything to say about banking.”
But with Barclays being criticised for its bonus pool, despite cutting payouts by 12 per cent, and his former employer HSBC likely to suffer the same fate, he is unable to resist defending his former colleagues.
“I have a job that’s about trade and investment and financial services is about trade and investment. We want to encourage investment in financial services, which contributes quite a lot to our exports.”
But in the context of the rise in the banking levy and the pressure on bonuses, is the UK still attractive for investment in financial services? “Yes,” he says, “look at Santander”.
His job as trade minister, he says, is simple: “The UK economy faced the challenge of finding a stable growth path, and that has to come from a better external performance. It isn’t going to come from consumption growth fuelled by debt and it isn’t going to come from government spending – we all know that. It’s got to come from investment and trade and that’s a challenge for every sector of the economy.”
He says the UK telecoms industry is a perfect example of the innovation needed to boost the UK’s exports.
“You can see the way in which the economy is going to look significantly different because of this industry. It is changing business models in public services, transport, health care for the elderly. The challenge for the UK is to engage in the international domain from the world go. Nobody can rest on their laurels.”
He says one of the changes he is instigating is to encourage greater personal relationships with big ticket investors, providing them with “bespoke ministerial support” from a designated minister who will be personally responsible for the relationship; “It’s not rocket science but it is new.”
His light-footed side-stepping of my banking questions show he is already adapting to working alongside politicians. But would he have accepted the position under a Labour government?
“I don’t regard this as particularly party political. This job is one that the UK needs to get right. It’s not ideological. I can’t think of a single thing we’re saying that wouldn’t have been done by any government.”
I hazard to ask him about his views on the banking levy, causing another flash of panic from the PR, who reiterates in no uncertain terms that the issue is off the agenda.
I am eventually ushered out of the meeting, but not before Green, calm and collected throughout, tells me he will meet with Chinese mobile firm Huawei later in the afternoon .
He says spending more time with the Chinese – “sharing experiences with them” – is vital for UK trade.
“I want to understand what Huawei’s strategy for Britain is. There are great opportunities in China and there are opportunities for the Chinese in Britain. It’s not a one way street.”
Had Green stayed on at HSBC he would inevitably have seen his focus shifting towards China. It seems all roads lead to Beijing.
CV | Stephen green
Education: Lancing College and Exeter College at Oxford, before earning a master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Career: Joined McKinsey & Co in 1972. Ten years later he went to work for HSBC in its corporate planning department. In 1985 he moved to focus on the bank’s global treasury operations, before becoming group treasurer in 1992. He was appointed to the board of HSBC Holdings in 1998, heading up the bank's investment division. He was made chief executive of HSBC Holdings in 2003. In 2005 he became chairman of HSBC Bank, finally taking the job of group executive chairman of HSBC in 2006.
Family: Married with two daughters.