Canadian-born George Bain, vice-chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast, has an easy affability and charm, and an open manner. But he has never shied away from uncomfortable decisions and he is nobody's stooge.
He will undoubtedly be galled to hear that the Fire Brigades Union condemned his review of the fire service's pay and working practices as sham. But he avoided fanning the flames of antagonism by stating, briefly but firmly, that the review was independent. He is not due to report until mid-December, so there is no sign that this could stave off the firefighters' strikes, due to begin next week.
Sir George has an international reputation in industrial relations, having been a mediator and arbitrator in many disputes and a consultant for public and private-sector organisations. These interventions have been firmly rooted in higher education research.
Sir George studied economics and political science at the University of Manitoba in the US, teaching there before coming to Oxford University in the early 1960s to take a doctorate in industrial relations. He then worked at Nuffield College, Oxford, the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and Warwick University, where he was chairman of the School of Industrial and Business Studies before becoming principal of the London Business School in 1989. He moved on to chair the Low Pay Commission between 1998 and 2001.
He has strong connections with Northern Ireland: his maternal grandmother ran a pub in the Belfast docks area. On his appointment, Queen's staff hailed Sir George as "a breath of fresh air" who would reinvigorate the university. They were less enthusiastic about the restructuring he initiated, with an investment in staff partly financed by the loss of existing posts. But Sir George's cordiality, as the government and firefighters will discover, has always been matched by hard-headedness and pragmatism.