Strong values behind global ambitions

Strong values behind global ambitions

He leads 1,800 staff at the NEC Group, a £307m venues and events business. But Paul Thandi’s strong values come from his parents – especially his mum. Steve Dyson reports.

Paul Thandi’s talking about values, and he’s on a roll: “Always strive to do the right thing. Work hard. If you make a commitment, then give it your all. If a person’s rude don’t be rude back: try to understand the other person’s point of view. Dedicate yourself to being a good person.”

But as Thandi’s quick to point out, while he tries to live up to these principles he can’t really claim ownership of them – they come from his mum, Kanwaljit Thandi. But they still guide him today in his job as chief executive of the Birmingham-based NEC Group, and in his wider advisory roles across the region.

Kanwaljit and Jagdish Thandi were Sikh immigrants from Ludhiana, in the Punjab, India. They arrived in Perivale, West London in the early 1960s, keen on public sector careers, and on making a new home for what was soon to be two children.

First came a daughter and then a son, Pavendeep, now commonly known by the anglicised name of Paul, but still fiercely proud of his surname, his parents’ origins and their hard work ethic.

Thandi recalls: “My mum was sister in charge of operating theatres at Hillingdon Hospital, while dad was a tax man dealing with death duties – he handled [Winston] Churchill’s death duties.

“We were latch-key kids in a different age. We’d go out on our bikes all day, playing soccer tournaments, playing with cousins. Music was a big thing – not only the Rolling Stones and The Beatles, but also Clash, Joy Division, Sex Pistols, Deep Purple and Blondie. I’ve got a transparent 12-inch of Heart of Glass!”

Despite his family’s Indian origins, Thandi shrugs off any memories of racism. “I do remember my dad showing me a sign on a house that said: ‘No blacks, no Irish.’ I was around five or six, and he told me: ‘That will change in your life time. If a man can’t see beyond the colour of your skin he needs to see a doctor.’

“So yes, there were bits of racism around. But then you’re in a different country. It’s life. If you’re white and abroad you get it. If you’re black and in the UK you get it. As global migration continues it will get more troublesome, but it will even out.”

Jagdish died on Christmas Day in 2006 and while – like most boys – Thandi had his own father-son issues, he still yearns for his company. “I was a judge in the EY business awards, and we asked all finalists: ‘Which three people would you have to dinner?’ Nine out of ten guys said one of the three would be their father. It’s a big thing that drives us all as individuals, saying: ‘Look dad…’. I’m not sure you exactly strive for his approval, but you want to share it with your old man.

“Yeah, we all have those moments – perhaps they don’t spend enough time with you, or don’t show you enough love. But for most blokes their dad’s the one individual they want at their ‘dream’ dinner. And if someone asked me, my old man would be at that table.

“He was lovely in terms of support, intellectual motivation – a really bright man. But he didn’t really realise his potential. And part of what I say is my job is to establish the Thandi name as it should have been established in this country.”

Thandi himself did well enough at school, getting nine O-levels and three A-levels before starting a Psychology degree at Southampton University. But course grumbles and the pull of a girlfriend saw him switch to Business and Economics at what was then Bournemouth College of Technology. He remembers his parents’ reaction: “My dad was okay, and said: “If that’s what you want to do, just make sure you complete it.’ But my mum? She didn’t speak to me for a term!

“Mum was the anchor of the family. She provided the base, the love and the values. She was the one who brought us up and held down an important job, and a second job as an agency nurse. That ethic sits well with me and my sister – knowing you work for your family.”

After his degree, Thandi became a Yellow Pages graduate trainee, and was soon their youngest ever national account manager. He then moved into general management and marketing with Blenheim Exhibitions, launching magazines and exhibitions all over the world. The company was sold to United Business Media, which paid for Thandi’s MBA at Henley Management School. And then, in 2005, he joined the NEC Group as commercial director, becoming chief executive just over a year later.

Thandi lives in a leafy Warwickshire village near Leamington with his wife, Nicki, and their children, a 12-year-old daughter, and two sons, aged 11 and eight. He recalls meeting Nicki at a wedding in Stirling Castle, chasing her for six months before she returned his calls.

They still take his mum, now in her 70s, on family holidays, most recently to a house in Salcombe hired to celebrate his 50th birthday in February. He tells me how when his wife asked him who he wanted there, he replied: “Just family – no-one else.”

He added: “The most important thing for me was my wife and children, and my mother, uncle, sister, cousins – we all grew up together. As I’ve got older, those family values have really come through strong. Little things like Sunday dinner – it’s when we all make sure we sit down together.”

At work, the last ten years have seen Thandi carefully preparing what was a local authority-owned NEC Group for the commercial world, a transition completed last year in a £307m sale to LDC, the private equity arm of Lloyds Banking Group.

Thandi believes this has “helped release an energy within our business” that wasn’t possible when the NEC was publically owned. “What LDC provides is a singularity of purpose. They’re a good team, some great people, and they give fantastic clarity on how to do what you do even better to grow the business.

“Sometimes, when you’re with a parent with so many other issues, it doesn’t always feel like you’re getting much attention,” says Thandi. “That’s how it felt with Birmingham City Council. Now it’s challenging, always pushing to improve. As chief executive, why wouldn’t you want that?”

The NEC Group’s combined revenues were £127m in the year to March 2015, and should rise by around 5% in the latest accounts. Faster growth is expected this year now that Resorts World – a new £150m business on the NEC site – is up and running. This Genting-owned complex boasts swanky bars, premium restaurants, stylish shops, a huge cinema, casino and posh hotel.

It’s already hosting 52,000 people a week and this is expected to become three million a year by 2017. Thandi says: “We [the NEC] get three million a year anyway, so that’s then six million. Yes, there’ll be some crossover. But customers coming to us for different reasons will now spend the whole day there.

“Resorts World is our anchor, because people need a reason to get off the plane. It’s a massive experience and means the NEC’s not just about a concert, a live event or exhibition. Now it’s also about leisure, retail and the night time economy.”

Thandi says the NEC is “finally” realising its potential: “We’re changing into something completely new. As a wider venues and events business we’re going to be one of the best exports out of Birmingham in years to come, as big as AEG [the sector’s current global leader].

“What I want to build is the largest leisure and entertainment district in Europe. Why? Because I can. We’re playing catch-up and they’ve [AEG] stolen the market, because the city didn’t take us out of the public sector. But now we’re on our way, and it’s a great plan.

“Once everything’s together – the NEC and Resorts World, the growth of the airport, HS2 and the motorway system, and the whole of UK Central [a name for this economic area] – there’s no reason why it can’t be a super region in Europe. Then we can increase that visitor number to eight, nine, even 12 million.

“We’ve just got to connect the city, and that’s going to happen. The infrastructure’s coming, the investment’s coming. It’s why I’m excited to stay here.”

But according to Thandi, the West Midlands is still lacking one crucial ingredient: “We’re missing service… the marketing, the experience and the promotion.” He’s in his regional adviser mode now: he’s a board member of Marketing Birmingham, chair of the Birmingham and Solihull Employment and Skills Board, and vice president of Solihull Chamber of Commerce.

He explains how 76% of his customers come from outside the region: “They’re national and international customers – they read the Financial Times, not the Birmingham Post.” And yet he feels the city – from politicians to the local media – is often stuck in a “parochial” world.

He adds: “Birmingham’s the facilitator, not the control. Waheed [Nazir, Birmingham’s strategic director for the economy] and Dransfield [Paul, the city’s deputy chief executive] are doing really good things, the city’s on the cusp of something enormous. But we’ve got to get on with it, and get alignment with our leadership. Clancy [John, Birmingham’s Labour council leader] shouldn’t be bothered with local headlines, because the city and region are so much bigger.”

It feels like restrained exasperation, and it seems one of Thandi’s biggest frustrations is the fudge of a name used for the emerging West Midlands Combined Authority. Should it be ‘Greater Birmingham’? He won’t say this, but his hints are strong.

“When I get off a plane in Europe, the Middle East or America and I say my company name, they say: ‘Ah yes, the NEC in Birmingham.’ All of us – from the Black Country to Coventry – have got to harness the power of that statement, as Manchester has.

“We’re a region, but every region needs a capital. Toulouse is globally known as the centre of France’s aerospace industry, home to Airbus, one of the world’s largest aeronautics manufacturers, although the factory is actually outside the city. We have to fire on all of our assets to realise global ambitions.”

Regional names aside, Thandi also believes the region should be more united in the way it treats visitors. “It’s about everyone having a script,” he says. “At the NEC, everyone including our bus drivers talk to customers to make sure they’re part of creating a great visit. We need more of that from the centre in places like Birmingham.”

And suddenly, Thandi’s on a values roll again – but this time it’s about how the region should act: “There should be five KPIs [key performance indicators] to promote the whole region. Everyone in the service industry should have some form of this tourism training, just a few hours, so they can talk about the landmarks, the developments.

“Planning permission should not be given for new hotels and restaurants, and cabbies should not be able to renew their licences, unless they sign up to those KPIs. Marketing Birmingham should send newsletters to every hospitality business updating them on what’s happening.

“All their staff should know the best restaurants, the transport options, what’s on at the theatre and music concerts – we need to lift that performance. Yes, greeting people in a good way, making sure we’re saying hello first and always, always upselling the region.”

The NEC Group

The NEC Group is best-known for the giant National Exhibition Centre, staging everything from famous public shows such as Crufts to huge international trade exhibitions like the Spring Fair.

Also on the NEC site is the Genting Arena, a 15,700-capacity venue holding everything from One Direction concerts to the Horse of the Year Show. The sister Barclaycard Arena reopened in Birmingham city centre after a £26m revamp. And nearby is the International Convention Centre, hosting around 300 business events and 250,000 delegates a year.
Other subsidiaries include The Ticket Factory, one of the UK’s largest ticketing agents, and Amadeus, a specialist catering business, serving 3.5 million covers a year – from the NEC’s own events to the Scottish Open golf tournament.

Overall, the NEC Group claims to have a £2bn annual impact on the regional economy, supporting almost 29,000 full-time jobs, including its own 1,800 staff.

Marco Pierre White Steakhouse, Bar and Grill

This popular restaurant’s stunning vista across Birmingham was ideal for the ‘tourism’ subject of our conversation. We both liked the idea of the cappuccino of wild mushrooms for starters (£6.95 each), and the soup itself was deemed “lovely”. But Thandi added: “Where’s the froth? And the chevril on top was a little dangly, clumsy to eat.”

For main course, Thandi had Marco’s classic Caesar salad, with avocado and anchovies (£13.50), with added chicken (£4) and grilled shrimps (£5). “That was nice and fresh,” he said. “The dressing was just enough, not too much or too little. But that was £1 a prawn!” In fairness, once mentioned, the waiter delivered a side plate full of prawns.

My choice was an 8oz fillet steak (£31.95) which came with triple-cooked chips, grilled tomato and onion rings, and an extra serving of creamed cabbage and bacon (£3.75).
This was good hearty food, and I washed it down with a large glass of Pinot Grigio (£8.80), while we also had bottles of still and sparkling water (£3.50 each), finishing with double expressos (£4 each).

Thandi enjoyed the experience: “Yes, I’d use MPW again. There was a spot of good service. The waiter [Norton Jones, of Smethwick] knew his menu, and I liked his manner and approach – not in your face. Also, the tables aren’t on top of each other, and the carpet absorbs the noise.”

MPW is at The Cube, Birmingham B1 1PR. To book call 0121 634 3433 or email