Over the course of his 18 years at the top of Manchester City Council, Bernstein has become known not only for his prowess as a local government leader, but also a distinct personal style and forceful personality.
Spotted alongside other cities’ chief executives and senior political figures, Bernstein always stands out, despite being one of the shortest men in the room. He rarely breaks out of his usual uniform; often in black, a scarf up to his chin no matter the weather, a heavy coat, neat comb-over and a penchant for distinctive bling, particularly a large Star of David gold ring and ‘HB’ cufflinks.
“Boundless energy” is a phrase used to describe Bernstein repeatedly; even when standing on the spot he bounces on the balls of his feet with a nervous energy. At big conferences such as MIPIM in Cannes, he covers more ground, holds more meetings, and works the room more than anyone else, even those less than half his age.
A property professional recruited by Bernstein into the council’s development team in the late 1990s remembers being called in for meetings at his room in Manchester Town Hall:
“He was always very generous with his time. You’d go into his office, and in those days there’d be a strong smell of cigars in the air, even more than the smell of his aftershave, with the chairs pulled up to the fireplace, and you’d think ‘has he been here all night?’ There was always a sense of dramatic tension, he’d sit at the same seat at the head of the table with everyone looking to him for decisions. I wondered how he would ever move out of that room.”
Known for his magnetism, Bernstein captures both a sense of a naughty school boy and a serious headmaster at the same time; attendees of MIPIM will be on the receiving end of a piercing stare from Bernstein should he suspect you are not representing Manchester as professionally as you should, and drunken attendees of dinners have been known to be asked to leave.
His style in meetings behind closed doors, said one of his former advisors, is built on winning arguments through hard work and preparation. “He thinks everyone else is a lazy so-and-so because next to him they are, he will outwork you, read the papers better than anyone else and then has the ability to come up with good ideas in a way no-one else can.” Manchester has repeatedly won funding bids for big projects by going to ministers “with something they’ve not seen before, going for the whole pot in order to make a change, not £5m for a small project,” the advisor explained, before adding, “he has a dark streak and is no angel, he taught me the habit of texting in meetings, often about people in the meeting who he didn’t like.”
Another advisor said Bernstein “has this insane ability to get you to agree with him. He is logical, rational, always evidence-based, intelligent.”
When taking part in panel debates, while making some of the most informed points of any participant, he will spend quiet moments scanning the room for familiar faces, and will murmur and joke with whoever is sitting alongside him. He gives the impression that speaking at the event is something he’s fitting in alongside other important business.
Meeting Sir Howard Bernstein for the first time, you can’t help but feel critically appraised. While always welcoming and ready for a debrief of the last City match, he’ll move easily into serious talk about big facts and figures and complicated political dynamics, but is quick with a derisory look and a dismissive laugh should you ask a question he doesn’t agree with.
Taking over from Bernstein has been described as “some big shoes to fill”, and while in reality those shoes may not be the largest, they’re certainly distinctive, and a successor with as much personality could be a rare find.