Birmingham’s ‘Mr Entertainment’ Paul Thandi talks to David Johns about big business, the city’s new golden age – and just chilling out…
Taking up the wall behind Paul Thandi is a huge piece of artwork. Made up of hundreds of multi-coloured lines, it’s a typographical tribute to history and culture. They’re all here… great heroes and villains, momentous people, places and events that changed and impacted our world, from One Small Step For Man to Tiananmen Square. From Mother Teresa to Nelson Mandela. From Elvis Presley to Sesame Street. All pieced together in an elaborate jigsaw to form the Union Flag with the aim to excite and inspire. Looking at it dominate the office of the boss of the NEC Group it’s almost impossible to think that he once kept it in his kitchen! Breakfast with Bjorn Borg, lunch with Ludwig Van Beethoven and dinner with Marlene Dietrich indeed! Thankfully, for the sake of space and the sanity of family life at his Warwickshire home the masterpiece produced by an artist friend several years ago now resides in his office at NEC HQ. “Not so long ago he contacted me and tried to buy it back,” said Paul. “It was obvious from the size of his offer that he wanted it badly – and it was also obvious that if I ever decided to sell it I could get a helluva lot more for it.”
Ah, there’s the businessman for you, always thinking of the best deal. But in Paul’s case there’s more to the man than just a razor sharp commercial, corporate mind. He’s also pretty super cool with it. His choice in office art is just one clue to the personality he brings to the job. Sprinkled on the coffee table are copies of the Harvard Business magazine mixed up with issues of Wired. And it only takes a few seconds with the man, complete in trademark figure-hugging black roll-neck, to appreciate that he looks after himself. “I run a lot,” he says. “On Saturday mornings. I take my boy to football – it’s the one thing I won’t let my business life interfere with. We all talk about work-life balance, but who among us gets it right, or anywhere near right. My family has to put up with a lot of not seeing me as much as I’d like them to. So, while he plays football, I go running – without my mobile. So I’m away from it all for a few hours!” There’s something ironic about the fact that the head of a group of businesses that brings enjoyment to millions every year finds it so difficult to carve out time to relax and have some fun himself. But that’s the way it is for the Midlands’ very own ‘Mr Entertainment’.
As chief executive of the UK’s largest and most high-profile venue management company, he’s responsible for 10 businesses in the NEC Group which deliver £2.1billion of economic investment to the West Midlands, supporting nearly 30,000 jobs. It’s a huge, growing business which is very different to the animal which Paul took over back in 2006. Not only has the group branched successfully into ticket sales (more than two million a year through The Ticket Factory), it has also gone into event catering with Amadeus, event hospitality with Amplify and most recently global show promotion and production with MemoryHaus. The CEO also led the NEC out of council control to private ownership earlier this year with the private equity company LDC, part of the Lloyds banking group. Also this year, the wraps came off the stunning Barclaycard Arena in the city centre and the Genting Arena on the NEC site. At the end of last year, Resorts World with its casino, shops, restaurants, cinema, hotel and conference centre was opened in partnership with Genting. “The key thing when I first arrived here was to turn the business into a data-led organisation. Prior to that we had no idea who we were selling to or talking to. That has completely changed so we are able to offer a complete experience to our customers. We also worked tirelessly to create a positive culture across the NEC Group, from the car park attendant to the finance director.”
Paul believes that positive culture needs to be scaled up so it becomes more evident and is adopted more widely across the region’s commercial, political and cultural communities. As a board member of Marketing Birmingham, he argues passionately that Brummies as a group must think bigger about the huge opportunities which are opening up for the city. “As a business the NEC Group contributes hugely to the wealth of the Midlands and together with the fantastic technology centres, the city’s excellence in health with the likes of the QE, our wonderful universities and colleges, the expansion of our airport and the arrival of HS2, the region has the best chance it has ever had to become a true global player. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and we are now pushing at an open door to really achieve. Birmingham is a great place to be right now.”