Kathryn James Managing Director - NEC Group Conventions & Exhibitions

We welcome Kathryn James, Managing Director, NEC Group Conventions & Exhibitions to our regular series of interviews with leading figures in the  business community. 

Tell us about your role as Managing Director of the NEC Group Conventions & Exhibitions.

To understand my role, you need to understand how the NEC Group as a business fits together. The Group is made up of five divisions or business units which are all supported by a sixth corporate division.

The biggest division is the NEC which focuses on exhibitions, live events, conferences and long stay experiences. The second division is our conventions and conferencing division which is made up of two venues - the ICC, based in Birmingham city centre, and our newest conference centre, the Vox which is on the NEC campus within Resorts World Birmingham. Our third division is our arenas and again we have two venues - The Genting Arena which is also on the NEC campus, and the Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham city centre.

  "Don't be scared of saying nothing. I had the advice from one of my bosses once to never miss the opportunity of "keeping your mouth shut".     I think when you are new you feel the pressure to be seen to be adding value, whatever that may mean for your business. Some reflective contemplation when you are new can be very valuable. This way, when you do come to say something, it is useful, thought through and beneficial to the business."    Kathryn James, Managing Director, NEC Group Conventions & Exhibitions

"Don't be scared of saying nothing. I had the advice from one of my bosses once to never miss the opportunity of "keeping your mouth shut".

I think when you are new you feel the pressure to be seen to be adding value, whatever that may mean for your business. Some reflective contemplation when you are new can be very valuable. This way, when you do come to say something, it is useful, thought through and beneficial to the business."

Kathryn James, Managing Director, NEC Group Conventions & Exhibitions

We then have our fourth division, Amadeus, which is our caterer to all our home venues providing everything from retail catering to fine dining, but also has several venues they cater for across the UK. Our fifth division is our ticketing agency, The Ticket Factory. They ticket our arena shows, many of our consumer exhibitions and long stay events and then they have other third party events they provide ticketing services for as well. Finally, our corporate division is made up of all our shared services such as payroll, HR, finance, marketing, PR/comms and health and safety.

I'm the Managing Director over the first two divisions - the NEC and the convention centres. I joined the NEC in 2007 and then from May 2016 took over the convention centres business unit too. The two areas haven't been merged but having one MD over all the conventions, exhibitions and live events drives more collaboration and sharing within the teams. I'm trying to bring out the commonality between the businesses, so the divisions therefore run side by side. 

What is your future vision?

The NEC Group vision is a simple but powerful one - we all focus on "Bringing Live to Life".  So, everything all of the business units focus on must have that at the centre.  For the NEC, ICC and Vox it is about being the No 1s in their marketplaces - not just in terms of levels of activity but because our customers put us there in terms of feedback, awards recognitions and customer retention.

What challenges are you facing?

Like most companies we face the challenge of combining great delivery, creativity and pace to change and grow whilst doing a pretty demanding day job. To overcome this, we must look at how we enable our teams to keep their eyes ahead of them to deliver for our customers today the best experience possible, but also giving them enough head space to look for more opportunities in the future. The pace at which we do all this can be challenging.

Where have you used your experience in other roles?

All my previous roles have given me useful experiences to draw upon. If I look at my time as an accountant that has given me a good understanding of the business world and how businesses work, which is particularly helpful when looking at profit and loss data across all our events. 

When I worked in aviation, I travelled all over the world and, therefore I manage to draw upon a lot of cultural awareness and experience. This is very useful particularly when we have international audiences in our venues. The customer and partner segmentation is almost identical in aviation to events so having that understanding prior to joining the NEC Group was invaluable. Also, having worked in airports that are very regulated and some of the most security sensitive environments that exist, I have found that very helpful when moving into venue management.

What do you think makes you a good business leader? 

I think the business grounding I got from being an accountant gave me a very broad, but also thorough, understanding of the business world, such as what are the drivers to success and what are the cause effects of failure, and these translate into any industry.

When I was at London Luton Airport I was also the HR Director and that gave me a very good grounding in the people side of the business. Not just the processes and legalities, but the importance of having values and vision and how you motivate your teams.

Coming from a big family has shaped me. I was always a member of a big team and I would sometimes be a leader, and sometimes not, which does help develop different leadership styles from an early age. Having a loud voice helps too, not only in business but at the dinner table!

Do you have any advice you'd pass on to a newly appointed company director?

Find somebody within the directorship who you can use as a sounding board in the early days. Someone internal, an external coach - or both - can be extremely helpful as you are starting your journey as a Director.

As a new Director - or this can be helpful at any point in a career - don't be scared of saying nothing. I had the advice from one of my bosses once to never miss the opportunity of "keeping your mouth shut". I think when you are new you feel the pressure to be seen to be adding value, whatever that may mean for your business. Some reflective contemplation when you are new can be very valuable. This way, when you do come to say something, it is useful, thought through and beneficial to the business.

My other piece of advice is to be mindful of dropping back and doing the job you used to do. It is easy to take a lot of comfort out of doing something as opposed to leading. In some respects, leading is much harder in the beginning to feel gratified about because activity is more pleasing in the early stages of a Director's career. 

What do you like to do outside of work? 

I am sporty so I love to go to the gym - I enjoy spin classes - and I really like the outdoors, so going hill walking or exploring. I like all kinds of music, but I very much like classical music and I'm very interested in meditation and Pilates. I will sometimes amuse my staff when they pop into my office and I have monks chanting! I do normally have music on in my office as I work very effectively with music on in the background.

I'm always looking for the next place to travel. In my house, wherever you go, I have either a physical atlas or a globe. I absolutely love looking at maps. I could sit for hours and look at a map of the world, it fascinates me.

Who is your hero/personal inspiration? 

I haven't go just one person who I would say encapsulates hero or inspiration for me. I tend to take a lot of inspiration from people who do the right thing even when nobody is looking. The people who have a strong sense of morality and of what is right or wrong and I like to read their biographies to see the effect they had on mankind, such as Nelson Mandela or anyone that can see that sense of higher purpose beyond their own self gain.

What are you reading right now?

I never read just one book, I always have two or three - or more - on the go. At the moment I've got a slightly weird combination as I'm currently reading 'The Picture of Dorian Grey', which is an Oscar Wilde book, then I'm also reading a guide book. I do love a guide book - my friends and family call me Dora the Explorer! This one is on the Kings and Queens of England and Scotland. My other one is a pretty heavy book but if you are interested in meditation and that side of spiritually you might find it quite thought-provoking. It's called the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

What has been your experience of working with Moon Consulting?

I have known Vanessa at Moon Consulting since early 2000 when I worked for TBI PLC. Moon Consulting were involved in several recruitment campaigns for her businesses, from TBI to Luton Airport and beyond!

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