'It's a job with a lot of baggage'

In his first interview as its chief executive, Andrew Morris tells Mike Fletcher about his five-year plan to move the NEC forward.

How have you settled into the role of NEC chief executive?

After nine months, I can say that joining a venue that sits within a politically influenced environment of local authority ownership is the most fascinating aspect of what I'm doing. The opportunity to influence a whole city is intellectually very exciting.

The NEC is a similar business to my previous Earls Court and Olympia (EC&O) Group but it's much bigger and I really feel loved and wanted by Birmingham city. In London, you tend to be a pinprick on the map and although you're creating economic impact, you are often taken for granted. This is not the case in Birmingham.

The support offered from the regional development agencies is significant and the NEC has a serious opportunity to take big leaps forward in the coming years.

You have made significant changes, including a new executive board. What was behind this 'new broom' approach?

Birmingham City Council recognised that the NEC had lost its way and they wanted someone who could run the place more like a private business.

They knew what they were getting when they employed me. I just didn't quite know what I would be getting.

I felt a new team would be better suited to face the challenges that lay ahead and I had the support to change things. It's always sad when loyal members of the team have to go but until a new team was in place, I didn't feel that the NEC was up for the fight.

Each person got their job on merit and underwent a rigorous selection panel recruitment process. I'm obviously delighted that candidates such as Paul Thandi and Shaun Ormrod won through as commercial director and group operations director respectively and the executive board is now complete.

Former Centre Exhibitions show director Andy Bird sadly died in May.

That must have been a difficult time at the NEC?

I have been in a situation once before where a work colleague has died and it's always hard. You are not trained to grieve in the workplace.

The Centre Exhibitions team received counselling and I felt that as an organisation, we dealt with it in a very compassionate way. It was particularly sad because Centre is about to embark on a new stage in its life with Clarion Events.

Now that Clarion Events has acquired the NEC's in-house organising arm, Centre Exhibitions, how will it move forward?

Clarion is going through the process of integration, which deputy director Kent Allen is heading up. Clarion managing director Simon Kimble will be instrumental in the business development and a new managing director or general manager position will be installed to take the business forward.

NEC commercial director Paul Thandi will continue to have no part to play within Centre Exhibitions.

One of the first decisions you made as chief executive was to scrap a £40m redevelopment of the venue's piazza.

I aborted the proposal because the public funding had gone pear-shaped and I didn't feel that it addressed some basic needs of NEC customers.

It was my sixth day of a new job and there were a few sharp intakes of breath. But there hadn't been proper customer consultation and not a single customer complained when I scrapped it. Within a short space of time, we had worked out new proposals for the money and had them agreed by the board.

How will the money now be spent?

There are 12 key areas of spend that will be phased over the next four years (see box). The £40m investment should also be viewed in the wider context of an investment in our people. It always strikes me as strange that the exhibition business is a service industry but we don't put people at the top of the agenda. A new five-year strategy for the NEC Group will put people and customer service first.

How have you communicated the new strategy of the NEC, ICC, NIA and NEC Arena to staff?

I spent the first six months devising a five-year strategy, which has been approved by the board and has now been communicated to the whole company via a one-day roadshow. There are also booklets published that outline each internal strategy for each part of the business.

The NEC booklet breaks the mission into five areas - people, product, profile, process and profit. The three main drivers behind this mission are investment, cultural change and business development.

This is the first time that the NEC has ever had a proper strategy. Before there was no burning desire for change, but losing the Motor Show to London symbolised to me that something was wrong.

What is the new strategy for catering at the NEC?

We are finalising the retail catering operators and the first wave will open during the summer. I have the added benefit of learning from mistakes made at EC&O Group when we introduced high-street brands, as I confess we didn't get it completely right at the time.

On the hall catering side I believe we are introducing an industry first.

We are retaining our offer in-house and creating pod shells, which will house the catering infrastructure and tailor several options to the customer profile on a show by show basis.

This flexible catering offer is being piloted in Hall Five during the autumn. Upmarket trade shows with discerning exhibitors will have different menu options than mass market consumer shows or niche family events involving children, for example.

Are you addressing all of the common grievances that are levelled against the NEC?

I knew this position came with a lot of baggage. As part of the four-year investment programme there will be buckets of seats available, improved toilets, better organiser facilities and improved car parking.

Will you address the issue of retaining talented staff?

We will focus on our people and their career development but I believe that rotating staff is important. We have a staff turnover of 15%, which equates to 150 people either joining or leaving the NEC Group each year.

I think that's about average for any large company and that it's more important to broadcast the message that the door is always left open for talented people to return. Shaun Ormrod was an ICC planner 10 years ago and has now returned as a member of the executive board.

Did the Motor Show leave the door open should it wish to return to the NEC?

I can't see a situation where the Motor Show would want to return.

I did sit down and bury the hatchet with the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders' (SMMT) Christopher McGowan at the recent Commercial Vehicle Show, however, and we have now announced MPH05, which doesn't make up for the NEC's loss, but over time it could do.

How do you now feel about the Motor Show being staged at Excel?

The manufacturers always had the power to decide on a change of venue and there was a perceived need to refresh the show's format. Moving a show will always tick that box and moving the Motor Show to London was right for those German brands that perceive the south-east provides more key buyers.

But the International Boat Show was heralded as a bright new tomorrow for consumer shows in the east and it failed to sustain the audience numbers of its launch year during its second outing. The issue for motor manufacturers is not the 2006 exhibition. The issue is, will there be a 2010 event?

Did you leave EC&O Group on good terms with its new owner Anthony Lyons?

It was kind of Anthony to elevate me to the position of chairman but you'd have to ask him if we parted on good terms or not.

I didn't want to be a chairman and there was no longer a challenging role for me at EC&O. He knew I would leave and the NEC job advertisement appeared just 10 days after I sold the business. These opportunities don't come along very often, so I had to go for it.

Do you have any business interests outside of the NEC?

I sit on the board of Marketing Birmingham, I have a passing interest in the family Business Design Centre firm and its affiliates, and my brother and I set up the Morris Charitable Trust many years ago to support local Islington charities. But it's an urban myth to suggest I have or have ever had outside business interests.

Looking forward, I am, however, likely to take up some non-executive positions in the coming years as I believe they can expand your horizons and help a core business.

With the NEC Group strategy in place and the three-year investment plan agreed, what is next for the NEC?

The market will see what we can achieve and then as far as I'm concerned every existing exhibition is up for grabs.

Organisers that are considering launching or relocating to the NEC will see that the support we can offer as a venue combined with the City of Birmingham is unbeatable.

The NEC is the National Exhibition Centre and we need to establish ourselves as such, in the same way that Wembley is the UK's national stadium.

We will be bidding for more international shows on behalf of the UK and we have the potential to double the 45m-strong audience that passes through our doors each year.


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