Calum Nisbet, the new West Midlands boss at the Institute of Directors, wants business leaders to help people at the bottom, not just enjoy life at the top. Steve Dyson finds out more over lunch.
In 1995, Calum Nisbet saved up enough money to pause what was then his hotel management career for a backpacking adventure in South East Asia. He was aged just 25 when he headed off to Bangkok and was 26 by the time he returned in 1996. But those eight months abroad travelling through Thailand, Indonesia, Nepal, India, Singapore, and Malaysia changed his life.
“Getting educated at boarding school and then working in hotels means you get used to everything being done for you,” explained Nisbet. “And so I found travelling so invigorating, not only exploring but doing everything for myself.
“When I decided to travel, I thought ‘I can’t do the whole world’ and so I chose South East Asia to really understand the people there – their different cultures and foods. I decided that I wasn’t going to work. I’d saved for travelling, to experience every day. And it’s stood with me ever since, given me a great understanding of how different communities live, the immense challenges they face. Even today, it helps keep things in perspective, and has changed my perception of what’s important.”
When Nisbet returned to the UK, he was working in a posh hotel again and was suddenly faced with a well-off woman “going crazy” because her room wasn’t quite ready for her at 7am in the morning. “So what?” was the thought that entered Nisbet’s mind, comparing her plight to less-fortunate women in South East Asia. He adds: “I realised life is not all about being on the top of the pile.”
Nisbet was born 46 years ago in Crawley, near Gatwick Airport, one of four boys, although his parents’ divorce and new relationships soon meant he was one of seven children. His family moved to Norfolk and he was educated as a boarder at The Leys School in Cambridge, before taking a degree in Hotel and Catering Administration at Middlesex University in Hendon, North West London.
During his degree, he had various hotel experience abroad and decided this was the career for him, with an initial plan for his own chain of hotels. His first real paid job was in 1992 as front office supervisor in a team preparing to open what was then called The Regent opposite Marylebone Station in London (it’s now The Landmark). “I just loved it,” he recalled. “When you’re building and opening a hotel, you’re involved with everything, from the palm trees to the staff. I really enjoyed helping to create and deliver that quality.”
After three years, Nisbet became one of three duty managers, and had saved enough money to depart on his dream back-packing tour. When he returned, he worked at another smart hotel but quickly realised he’d enjoyed “developing and opening” a five-star hotel, whereas simply working at established venues was “just running it”.
He went to Dublin for four years, starting with a new job as front-of-house manager during the development and opening of the Merrion Hotel in 1997, helping find and train the right staff. Nisbet thrived on this, and after a while moved into consultancy, establishing a hotel
and catering desk for recruitment specialist Collins McNicholas. “I thought: ‘I know hotels, I know London, I know Ireland,’ and was soon recruiting really quality staff from London to work in Ireland. It went well and I was asked to start a sales and marketing desk as well.”
Now a proven a recruitment consultant, Nisbet headed back to England in 2001 for a job in accounting and finance recruitment. “I hated it,” he recalls. “I had nothing in common like I did with hotel staff, and although I did really well out of it I found it difficult.”
Nisbet decided to change careers again, and started “at the bottom” as a Yellow Pages salesman, where he got what he describes as “the best sales training in the world”. He explains: “We were trained in how to understand the needs of the customer, so we could come up with a sensible solution that they wanted. Then, the only thing left was to justify the cost of that solution.
“For many people, this was their only real marketing conversation of the year, and we helped them focus on how to maximise their profit margins. For instance, a florist told me that the most important business for them was funerals, and so the solution was to find how we could promote their business in the right place – with funeral operators.”
Nesbit spent seven years with Yellow Pages, from 2003 to 2010, becoming a field sales manager. He left when the internet led to the fast-shrinking of printed directories, which meant “the whole sales model changed, and was not one I necessarily bought into”.
By now Nesbit was living down south and married to Genevieve, who he’d met when they worked together at The Regent back in the 1990s. They decided they needed a change of scene and spotted a job advert for a ‘corporate relations manager’ at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO). “It was a bit mad,” Nisbet says, smiling. “I was not a huge classical fan but knew about and liked the orchestra, and I was not a musician but liked music. I was basically saying ‘I’m not from your world intellectually, but I can be your person if you want me to translate the message for you’.”
He got the job, and spent the next three years building and strengthening the CBSO’s portfolio of corporate partners, increasing revenue “from £75k to £250k with 100% retention”, and changing the way corporate relationships worked. “We made a huge difference in how people talked about it,” he says, “which meant people understood what we were trying to do by using their money in areas like educational outreach. The message was ‘how can businesses collaborate for the greater good and for themselves’, because I don’t just believe in corporate philanthropy. There’s got to be clear ideas of what’s in it for both parties.”
In late 2013, Nisbet’s boss at the CBSO left and he applied but didn’t get the resulting job. He says: “I thought if I can’t get this role do I leave for something different? It was a heavy heart moment but the right thing to do, and I’ve still got very strong links at the CBSO.”
Nisbet then spent a short period in corporate affairs at a law firm before launching his own company, Zig Zag Consulting, which focused on supporting relationships between corporates and charities, working with clients as diverse as The Library of Birmingham Trust and Birmingham Airport.
When the vacancy of regional director at the Institute of Directors (IoD) West Midlands came up, Nisbet applied and got the job. He jokes: “After a somewhat eclectic career, I’d quite like this one to stick for a while!” He says: “In many ways my previous jobs have led to this one: building strong brands, developing customer service, retaining clients. Anyone can win clients but the IoD role is all about keeping them, understanding their businesses and operating in their networks.
“Yes, this is about selling the IoD’s virtues, but then making sure they get value and therefore remain members. I’d heard a lot about the IoD being a London-centric business, but I believe there’s now genuine enthusiasm to give regions more independence, freedom and support. That’s what I’m coming in to do.”
Nisbet has been busy in his first six months, re-establishing the IoD brand, supporting the region’s business leaders and helping set standards for member directors to aspire to. He says it’s all about “good leadership, good governance and good boards”, because “all that equals a good business”.
But that’s what the IoD’s already about. What’s Nisbet’s personal input? “One of my main aims is to make the IoD more relevant,” he says, “and to make sure our membership is feeling understood. Refreshing the brand and getting in front of a new audience based on the networks I’ve developed. The West Midlands is one of the UK’s key areas for entrepreneurs, and there’s a definite need for support.”
Nisbet lists a few new products: the ’99 Club’, where new members pay just £99 for the first year; the ‘Women as Leaders’ club; and various ‘Mastermind’ groups which offer peer-to-peer mentoring and support. There are, he says, “some real winning stories” coming out of “putting like-minded people together”, and as a result “they’re growing and doing really well”.
He adds: “I want the IoD West Midland to be in the same breath as the Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, the CBI and local LEPs. We don’t see them as competition because the IoD’s idiosyncrasy is that we look after the individual, not the business. “We focus on professional development with courses for every level of director. Often with entrepreneurs their business is growing faster than they can keep up with. We want to make sure their business does not outgrow them by training them.”
Good governance, succession planning, strategic thinking, negotiation skills, and finance management are just some of the training areas, allowing business leaders to pass the IoD’s Certificate, then its Diploma, and ultimately gaining Chartered Director status.
Nisbet’s big challenge is to grow membership from a base of “around 1,800” and to tackle what’s currently a “high attrition rate”. He adds: “I’m conscious that a lot of our members are in the latter part of their careers. I’d like to rejuvenate the future profile of the IoD with a younger audience.”
The Nisbets lived in Smethwick for the first seven or so years in the West Midlands, before moving to Belbroughton, Worcestershire, where they’re now bringing up their children – a son, aged 10, and a daughter, eight. Despite Brexit, Nisbet feels everything’s looking good for the region: “Employment’s up, we’ve had more FDI [foreign direct investment] than anywhere else for the last two years, we’re an entrepreneurial city, we’re leaders in digital creative, and in advanced manufacturing, and there’s unprecedented collaboration between the LEPs, politicians and business people.”
I challenge him on what some of the emerging labels really mean – such as the so-called ‘Midlands Engine’ and the ‘West Midlands Combined Authority’ – but Nisbet’s insistent: “Look at what the likes of Andy Street [John Lewis boss, and chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP] have done under the labels.
“He’s linked Birmingham and the Black Country like no-one before, and has managed to create a better profile for the West Midlands area in London than we had before. Now it’s time for government to give us the power to run ourselves.”
On the potential West Midlands mayor, although he won’t name him specifically, Nisbet would love the likes of Andy Street to stand: “The region would benefit from a business leader, someone who has the experience of bringing people together. We need direction, and that’s not going to come from a politician in my opinion.” On Brexit, Nisbet admits that the ‘Leave’ vote was “not what our business members wanted”, but that “everywhere in the Midlands voted to leave, and we can’t be blind to that”. He says it’s now up to business leaders and organisations to “provide clarity, direction and find opportunities”.
Nisbet also wants the IoD to lead the way in businesses becoming “more responsible” for the region. He says: “There are many good sides – professional services, manufacturing, tourism, and all the other things we shout about. But there are bad sides too: the skills gap, long-term unemployment levels in inner city suburbs, illiteracy rates. It’s great that we’re attracting and retaining talent. But what about organic growth? What about the growth of individuals here?
“How can we channel positives into helping people? It’s a responsibility for businesses in this region. For example, how many business leaders are school governors, practicing what we preach? We can’t shy away, and we can’t just sit here and council bash or Tory bash. We need to recognise business isn’t just about the good life and expensive restaurants, and that if everyone does just a little bit of value then we can help the region’s social cohesion.”
El Borracho De Oro
If you like Spanish tapas, you’ll love this venue, created by experienced restaurateurs Emma and Alfonso Yufera-Ruiz. We left it to the Catalan chef to choose dishes to sample, and he didn’t disappoint. To start, we shared a large selection of cheeses which included a sharp Queso Manchego, made from unpasteurised sheep milk, cured for seven months; Queso de Penamellera, a milder cow’s cheese, similar to brie; and Queso Pregondón, a tangy blue cheese made from goats’ milk.
Served with this was cured meats that included Jamón Ibérico (ham), Chorizo Ibérico and Cecina de León (cured beef), the aromas and tastes creating a real buzz on the tongue.
Among our favourite hot dishes was Calamar Relleno, a different take on squid that’s stuffed with fennel, eggs and prawns. The presentation was impressive, leaving you in no doubt what you were eating, but the texture was tender, the tastes superb.
Another success was a pan of juicy mussels cooked in a delicate sauce containing hazelnuts, paprika and white wine, a nice Spanish twist to what you’d normally expect from this shellfish.
Various other dishes were tasty, but the very best we tried was a giant courgette flower stuffed with cod and a nutty, tomato sauce. This was a delight to look at when it arrived and was delicate yet memorable on the palate.
Prices for classic tapas range from £4.50 to £9.50 a dish, with five or six to share creating a filling evening meal, perhaps just leaving space for dessert. For lunch, there’s a special offer from Tuesday to Friday of two tapas for £6.95, a deal that’s also available on Tuesday evenings.
El Borracho is slightly challenged in an obscure location with limited parking, so you’d be advised to catch a cab. But once you try it, you’ll be back for more. El Borracho De Oro is at Harborne Court, Harborne Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 3BU. To book visit www.elborracho.co.uk/book-a-table or call 0121 454 5368.