Why did former Aston Villa chief executive Paul Faulkner decide to become the new boss of Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce? Steve Dyson finds out over lunch.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been here,” says Paul Faulkner, looking around as we sit down in the Aria Bistro at the Hyatt Regency. “No, I have,” he corrects himself, pointing to a corner of the adjoining bar. “It was over there that Martin and I sat down with James Milner when we were signing him.”
For ‘Martin’, read Martin O’Neill, manager of Aston Villa from 2006 to 2010; and for the James Milner deal, read £12m, the fee Villa paid Newcastle for the England midfielder on 29 August 2008.
Those names and multi-million pound transfer fees typify the Premier League football world that Paul worked in from 2006 to 2014 at Aston Villa, the last four years as chief executive, a role he also held briefly at Championship club Nottingham Forest until earlier this year.
His memory leads naturally to my main question. After nine years of managing professional football at such high levels, what attracted him to the arguably more mundane role of chief executive at Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce? I mean, the Chamber’s a fine institution, and his appointment is a great, attention-grabbing catch. But isn’t it a bit, well, old-fashioned for a 37-year-old, when his youth and experience could have led to a future at a bigger club, or in the higher echelons of the FA or Premier League?
Paul is candid: “For me, the big priority for my next job was being in this region for family reasons. My older son, William, has cystic fibrosis, and is receiving great care at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, so it’s very important to me to be here.
“That helped narrow my choice of jobs. But it’s also personal reasons. I’ve done a lot of travelling in my life – I’ve had two stints working in the US, in London and in the North West. And before that, my family was always travelling all over the country when I was a child [his dad, David, is a senior player in regional newspapers].
“I feel very anchored to the Midlands now. I love it here. It’s a great balance of size and activity. London makes me feel claustrophobic. Birmingham’s big enough to have an awful lot going on, but small enough to be at the centre of things. And it’s near space – the countryside – so you feel like you can live. A big city, but not choked up.”
These are fair points, especially the ongoing care for William, who’s nearly two. Paul adds that his wife, Jayne, is a doctor at Birmingham Women’s Hospital, and their second son, Thomas, was born three months ago, so his family roots are spreading at their Sutton Coldfield home.
But, I persist, these are all geographic not sector reasons, and there’s plenty of other top football clubs in and around the West Midlands. And given his senior status, surely he could have commuted to work elsewhere in some comfort?
It’s then that Paul hints at elements of football that he’s fallen out of love with: “For me, I was looking for a different opportunity. For example, the Forest role had its challenges… Don’t get me wrong, football was a wonderful, most interesting experience, but for me my next move wasn’t about staying in the game at all costs.”
I assume he’s referring to the well-known story that he left Forest after the club’s owners sacked team manager Stuart Pearce against his wishes. But without going into specific details, he indicates this wasn’t the only reason, and that it was more about his overall discomfort at how things were being run.
He confides in me the names of other top clubs that approached him when he left Forest, but again infers that the way he’d started to feel about football as an industry meant he just didn’t fancy staying in the sector. “I’d reached the stage where I had the flexibility to make a decision on the type of business I wanted to work for,” he says. “I want to be professional, and would not take a role for the wrong reason. It was also about working for good people. I just wasn’t desperate to stay in football at any costs.”
That’s as much as I can get Paul to talk about his departure from football, so what attracted him to the Chamber, which has around 80 staff and an annual turnover of about £6m? He recalls: “They [the Chamber] approached me, and I thought: ‘That’s a bit different.’ It pricked my interest. It has a big membership component, not dissimilar to season ticket holders. And I’ve long been a passionate advocate for Birmingham and the West Midlands.
“At Villa, a member and patron on the Chamber, this was on the fringes. But here was a chance to really make things happen. Ideas start in your head. What we can and should do better. I decided to go for it, but to be quite bold about what I wanted to bring to the table.”
Paul makes a point of paying tribute to Jerry Blackett, the Chamber’s former chief executive who he succeeded: “He was the key person who sold the job to me. He’s someone I’ve respected for a number of years, and he continues to be a friend. I want to build on Jerry’s legacy.”
Tributes paid, he explains his mission: “I want to bring a different, fresher approach, and the board’s given me a mandate to do that. I’m looking to understand how we communicate – to members, the business community and the wider world. Our relevance.
“Most businesses are constantly evaluating costs, and so it’s crucial to make sure we’re in touch with the business community and representing them, understanding, listening and enticing people - we want people to come to us.”
Paul mentions my phrase “old-fashioned” and says he wants to “change that perception” by “refreshing our offering” to Chamber members. “It’s a great brand,” he says, “it’s 200 years old, everyone knows of it, even if they don’t know exactly what it does. And these are such exciting times in the region, which means there’s a really important space for the Chamber. We have to make sure our standards are super high so people say: ‘They’re really good at what they do.’”
I ask for more details about his “communications” plan, as the Chamber already has ex-Fleet Street journalist John Lamb leading its media team. John’s the director of press and PR, and is often the Chamber’s out-of-hours front man for broadcast news, dealing with daily press enquiries and editing the Chamber Link magazine.
Paul nods: “John does a great job and because of that we’ve got the links with traditional media. But we need to be revealing our digital offering – the web, social media – looking at how people are receiving and consuming content, and how we’re delivering it.”
Paul reveals the Chamber is about to appoint a director of marketing and communications, a new position alongside John’s to look at what he calls “softer communications”. He says: “We need to modernise, making sure we really understand our membership base. From sole traders to massive corporations, we need to look at every process, matching it up with what we can offer. The web has so many strands, and we have so many different brands.”
He’s right there. The Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce is the umbrella for a family of chambers: Birmingham, Solihull, Sutton, Chase, Lichfield and Tamworth, Burton, Future Faces, Asian Business, and the British-American Business Council.
“We’re trying to take stock of how we’re communicating all that and asking if it’s effective for us and our audience. It’s all part of a six month strategic review. What are we doing now? What are we not doing? What do we need to be doing? Then we’ll put a plan in place to maximise value for money, and to stabilise and extend membership.”
That membership figure currently stands at around 2,500 companies, which Paul says was pretty stable last year, with a “tiny” growth. But his goal is to be better at retention – reducing what’s currently far too high a churn – and therefore properly growing membership.
“We’ve come through the depths of the 2008 recession,” he says, “and the world is okay – there’s a good feeling around. And so there’s an opportunity to grow. There’s a lot of good work being done here. Thanks to Jerry, the Chamber’s really well connected, and its work with the chief executives of local authorities and the LEPs is really encouraging.
“The Chamber’s a natural facilitator, and we’ll continue to play that role. Things like HS2, the airport, HSBC’s relocation, the Kerslake report, international business – we’ve got to be a part of that, watching, listening and learning for our members. Making sure we’re helping the whole region seize the moment, delivering real change.”
But on top of keeping all those plates spinning, Paul’s determined to improve the Chamber’s internal focus: “We need to improve those external perceptions, make more impact and grow our appeal to new members. That means being nimble, flexible, open, listening and connective. Being ‘mobile-optimised’, using the latest iPad and iPhone apps for effective messaging, keeping in tune with how businesses are communicating.
“Online, the Chamber needs to be up to speed – sharing with mobile and tablet users, with an outstanding desktop site. We’ve got to make sure that first perception is strong wherever people come across us – whether that’s Google+, Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.
“The experts say you’ve just seven seconds to grab someone’s attention online, for them to think: ‘This looks like an organisation I ought to be a part of.’ There’s good work going on behind the scenes at the Chamber, but those first impressions are crucial.”
Away from the Chamber, Paul’s committed to a number of other roles: he’s an associate non-executive director at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, and a trustee of Cure Leukaemia, Town Hall and Symphony Hall, and the Library of Birmingham Trust.
As for football, Paul grew up an ardent Norwich fan – after living near the club as a child when his dad worked at the Eastern Daily Press. He says this made life interesting when he had a number of run-ins with Norwich when leading Aston Villa.
“Your allegiences shift,” he reflects. “As a kid, you support your club and that’s it. So when we moved to Chester, I was a proud and committed Norwich fan. But you get immersed in work, and I’d now say I was a Villa fan. Villa v Norwich? I’d be backing Villa, without a moment’s thought. I went to the FA Cup semi-final last season, and I have season tickets.
“I do miss some of the great people I worked with at Villa and Forest. I’m still in touch with people like Stuart Pearce, Paul Lambert and Gérard Houllier, various people at the FA, the Premier League, and some journalists.”
So would Paul go back to the game? “I’ve not thought about it. Not right now. I’m focused on the here and now. I’m relaxed about what the future will hold, but I’m genuinely excited about this role, getting stuck in and doing a real job for the Chamber.”
Aria Bisrro, Hyatt Regency, Birmingham
I love the Aria Bistro’s location: a few steps up from the Hyatt’s main entrance lobby, but still within the voluminous space of the ground floor atrium.
This creates the privacy of any huge building, which means private conversations cannot be heard by any other table. But it also allows for easy people-watching at one of Birmingham’s top venues. You can see who’s arriving and departing, who’s drinking coffee in the lounge, who’s drinking cocktails at the bar, and who’s walking up the sweeping staircases to meeting rooms above. There was a smallish choice from the set menu at lunch, but varied enough for most palates. Paul was happy with the freshness of his buffalo mozzarella, sat on a bed of assorted tomatoes and served with basil oil.
Meanwhile, I enjoyed the juicy tuna in my Niçoise salad, nicely balanced with gamey quail egg, warm green beans and new potatoes, and the distinct taste of small black olives. For mains, Paul chose the chicken à la bonne femme – which means it’s in a creamy, mushroom and onion sauce – served with fennel salad. He said the meat was perfectly moist, and the portion filling but not too large for lunch. My bream fillet was served with roasted new potatoes, parsnips, peas and onion. The fish was pan-fried, creating a perfectly light crunch.
The Aria’s two-course lunch is priced at £14.50 a head, which we thought was excellent value at such a nice venue, full-sized trees above our table adding to the airy atmosphere. We sipped French chardonnay (£7.50 a glass), which suited our chicken and fish well, and had nicely brewed coffees instead of desserts (three-course lunches are £19.50).