Achtung baby ...

Achtung baby ...

Dirk Mischendahl came to Leeds to study and loved it so much, he’s back, creating a big noise through even bigger events. Peter Baber meets the German in his home from home.

When we finally get round to the general election this year, one person who won’t be voting is Dirk Mischendahl. Not because he doesn’t want to, but because he isn’t allowed to as he still holds a German passport.

“I just can’t,” he says, with no hint of a German accent, and only the faintest twang betraying that he was brought up in Australia. “I can pay lots of tax, but because I still have that passport, I can only vote in local elections, not general elections. I should get around to changing it, I suppose.”

Even many native Leodiensians are not as passionate about the UK’s fourth largest city as Mischendahl is about his adopted home town.

And there are even fewer who have put their money as actively where their mouth is as he has, not just with the Northern Art Prize, which he and his company Logistik have more or less singlehandedly got off the ground, but also by stamping his mark on many venues across the city. These include the Tiled Hall, the new Leeds City Museum, and now Harewood.

Our Victiorian forefathers would no doubt have been fuming that such a supporter of the city has not been given the freedom to vote. But perhaps Mischendahl’s nonchalance is a sign that in today’s world a successful businessman can make his influence felt in many other ways than just the ballot box.

And he is certainly a successful businessman. He towers over even this 6ft 6in interviewer when he opens the door in a natty pinstripe suit. It’s 8am and he’s the only one in, so I sports car – is his.

He certainly exudes confidence as he shows you around the converted mill Logistik has more or less taken over, particularly since it expanded, first into digital marketing with offshoot Brand New, then into consultancy with Triffid, another subsidiary, and most recently with its rescue from administration of next door neighbours the Thinking Agency. Mischendahl has clearly seen the world too.

Born in Germany, he moved to Australia when his father was sent there by his employers. He is cagey about his age, says only that he has already travelled much and “done the London thing”. So why does he have such a strong attachment to Leeds? After all, after his successes, first with the Love Parade event and then in setting up Logistik, which now numbers Asda, Marks & Spencer and Lloyds Banking Group among the companies it provides events and communications for, he could easily have done the usual thing of quietly moving down south, where more of the action is perceived to be.

He says he is deeply grateful to the city he fell in love with when he came to Leeds University to study psychology. “I owe Leeds a lot,” he says. The University gave me an opportunity. Brian Hudspeth was the financial controller of the student’s union there, and he gave me a leg-up. I worked with one Dave Small, who started up the rag ball at the union, which has now got 10,000 students going to it every year. In its second and third year, we even got support from Leeds City Council, and in particular from Denise Preston, who used to be the director of parks and countryside.”

His wish to return some of these favours led in part to the foundation in 2007 of the Northern Art Prize, a £16,500 annual prize for artists working in the north of England whose work is shown at Leeds City Art Gallery.

Logistik still is the main sponsor of the event, and in its first year the company put in £125,000 of its own money - a staggering amount, when you consider that even now its turnover is only £12m.

Mischendahl says the event, which he thinks “has the potential to be Turner-esque”, was designed to try to stem the flow of creative talent down south.

“Even people like Hallmark have huge problems getting people to stay,” he says.

“The Northern Art Prize was part of that – a small gesture, but we are now getting serious artists.” The prize has certainly won publicity – not all of it positive. But then publicity about the Turner Prize hasn’t always been hugely gushing either. Mischendahl says this year they plan to introduce an education programme to the event.

“We have to give reasons for people to stay north,” he says. “There is huge talent in the north, but it never gets seen. People go down to London and never come back, and people who can’t go to London get forgotten about.” And no, he has no regrets about spending such money on such a relatively exclusive event.

“I have never been bashful about that,” he says. “We have made money out of that prize in contacts. It is a win-win-win. Last year, we worked out it was a return of £250,000 or £300,000. So I am happy to spend £60,000 a year on it. So a risky proposition that seems to have paid off. Rather similar, in fact, to Love Parade.

It was his wish to bring this German dance music event to the UK, and more particularly to Leeds rather than London, that really brought him to public attention. Even though he managed to get sponsorship from Radio 1, the event, which finally took place in the summer of 2000, was not without controversy, particularly among some locals who were worried about it getting out of control.

In fact, when it was moved to Newcastle the following year, the event was cancelled, and it has never been held in the UK since.

But it certainly put Leeds on the music map, and helped spur on the development of the Leeds Festival, now an annual fixture out at Bramham Park.

“Love Parade was the pinnacle,” says Mischendahl, looking back. “We met up with Radio 1 just after they had come back from Berlin, and they were keen to do it. But I still remember sitting in Leeds City Council’s Leonardo Building with 16 senior police officers, who were all saying, ‘we’re cancelling it’, and me saying, ‘if you cancel it now on Wednesday, people will still turn up on Saturday. You can either try to control it, and we will move it up to Roundhay Park, or you will have to deal with it on the streets’. I still think it was a phenomenal event.” The event’s success spurred him on to grow what eventually became Logistik.

But of course it has also led to many people – this magazine included – going to him for comment on Leeds’ much-protracted attempt to get a new commercial arena off the ground. As a member of the board of Marketing Leeds, Mischendahl is more circumspect than he has been in the past about what kind of arena he thinks Leeds should have, and where it should be.

At least, he is more circumspect about what he is prepared to say on the record. But he does say the need for such an arena, and the need for it to be flexible, is beyond dispute. So that does not mean just one huge cavern which only real megastars can manage to fill.

There needs to be room for business conventions and trade shows too. In short, there needs to be the kind of construction which just about every German city has on its outskirts now. Mischendahl is particularly impressed with a convention centre he has seen in Hamburg. “It has a floor that drops,” he says, “and then a new floor comes up above it. So they can start building one exhibition while the other is still being packed away.

“But a real hothouse mentality exists in Germany. We need flexible space like that here. We don’t need an arena to have another Robbie Williams or whoever else is flavour of the month.” The cost argument he clearly thinks is a no-brainer.

“The money in conferencing is phenomenal,” he says.

“Look at the NEC for example.” You get the feeling that he is often battling against the still lingering view that somehow event management isn’t really a serious business. This applies just as much, he says, to attitudes towards people who work in the industry.

“The industry is really under-represented in terms of responsibility,” he says.

“If you think about what an event is, you could have 4,000 people in a room with an absolute load of production in an environment that is managed. And never mind the content, which is the really important part. There are health and safety and wellbeing issues, and all that is the responsibility of the event manager. Even more so with litigation culture. But people still look and say, ‘oh, they are just an event manager’.” Such an attitude is only bolstered, he says by people coming into the industry without the necessary back up.

“They come out into the market and they are not insured, and they haven’t got the necessary standards.” Mischendahl is increasingly seeing companies competing against Logistik to provide events that are also his own suppliers – small audio visual companies that are claiming now to be offering a full events service as well.

But such companies are also no doubt reacting to what has been a huge downturn in the market, as companies choose to cut back on just the kind of thing Logistik offers.

“I was more aware of recession than most,” says Mischendahl, “because people in the property market we were working for knew it was coming for a long time. These guys were saying, ‘watch it’. So I did enough that got us through.” Even then, he says, he found the recession “scary as hell”.

“But it was also very refreshing,” he adds. “You had to think entrepreneurially. We were certainly not unscathed. We lost nearly £1m in reserves, and in 2007/08 we made an overall loss of £396,000. But we dealt with it well, and this year we have come out with really strong results – and a profit of nearly £200,000.. The recession was also tough, he says, because he knew he was going to have to make his hard-working staff – those he was not going to have to make redundant – work even harder. That has meant coming out of the recession has also proved tricky.

“People think you are all smoking Cubans again,” he says. “People start to reflect. They are fed up from being fed up, and you start to have things about quality of life. Big corporates have also started to employ more. I have lost three or four great people to big business who pay far more than I can afford to. People say, ‘I don’t want to work this hard’, and that all starts coming in.

“We have to make sure people realise we are looking after them.” To that end, he is introducing a mentoring scheme at work, where key individuals in the company are encouraged to say where they want to go.

It is rather similar to the approach Logistik now operates with its clients, so that rather than wait to see what events they might want the agency to run, they actively engage in finding out just what kind of messages the company wants to communicate through its events.

“We talk and work directly with the board of each company,” he says.

And from such discussions they can set up links with every part of the agency – content, digital, and creative as well as event management.

“We don’t want to compete on price, because that’s dead now. But everyone is trying to do value, so what are we going to do? The next step is thought leadership – not just content and creative, but leading the thoughts around that.

“We are also getting our clients together – so Orange is meeting Marks & Spencer.” The key thing, he says, is to keep on your toes, keep evolving.

Just look, he says, at what happened to the Thinking Agency, which he now plans to turn into a sustainability consultancy – a new pet topic of his.

“The Thinking Agency had great clients back in the day,” he says, “but it fizzled out because the owners fizzled out.” Even with his partner now expecting a baby, and feeling determined that he doesn’t want to be an absent father, “in an industry that is all about being absent”, there seems little danger of him fizzling out.