Kind of magic: Colin Armstrong, Merlin Entertainments Group

Working for a theme park operator sounds like the best job in the world. But Merlin Entertainments Group is not your average operator.

Kind of magic: Colin Armstrong, Merlin Entertainments GroupWorking for a theme park operator sounds like the best job in the world. But Merlin Entertainments Group is not your average operator.

Second only to Disney in size, the company looks after 60 attractions across Europe and the US, including ­family favourites such as Alton Towers, Sea Life Centre, Legoland, Madame ­Tussauds, Dungeons, Heide Park in Germany and the London Eye.

It is on the last of these that I meet Merlin’s group legal director and company secretary Colin Armstrong.

It can be rather distracting ­interviewing someone inside a glass pod on the world’s tallest wheel, but it does give some sense of what it must be like to work for Europe’s ­largest visitor attraction operator.

Most would share the view of ­Armstrong’s four children, who think every day is full of white-knuckle rides, aquariums and the occasional spin in the teacups. “They think I spend all day on rollercoasters – it’s not ­really like that,” he says.

Being the only member of the legal team means “we’d better run it past Colin” has become something of a mantra among the rest of the workers – but Armstrong does not mind. “There’s something nice about being the only lawyer in the company,” says Armstrong, who alone supports the entire group on all legal matters.

Some feat when you take into account that since US private equity house Blackstone acquired Merlin in 2005, the company has grown 20 times in size, turning over e1bn (£670m) a year.

Merlin is now the largest visitor attraction operator in Europe and is undertaking an aggressive expansion plan that includes acquiring and ­opening at least five new attractions a year. The group has also announced plans to open the world’s largest Madame Tussauds in Hollywood in 2009 and a Legoland in Dubai in 2011.

The company employs around 13,500 staff and often the attractions are at the centre of a community.

However, every now and then, Armstrong has to defend any misuse of the brand – an unfortunate aspect of having many partners that include the company’s attractions on leaflets or as part of holiday deals.

“We’re robust in our defence,” he explains. “But it’s not in our ­interests to be heavy-handed. Everyone knows our attractions, but not ­perhaps ­Merlin, and we need to be careful we’re endorsing the right people.”

The job also throws up more unusual work. Recently Armstrong had to answer questions on the ­legality of offering free entrance to children with Asbos. He also had to deal with a disgruntled English ­visitor who objected to a William Wallace day at the Edinburgh ­Dungeon, where a costumed Wallace invited visitors to bring along something English for him to smash.

“All the visitors loved it,” says ­Armstrong, a Scot himself. “But ­someone 300 miles away didn’t. It’s all sorted now – everyone realised it was a joke. That’s the beauty of this job – I can be negotiating a multimillion-pound acquisition deal one day or be in Staffordshire Magistrates Court defending our interests the next.”

The company is also planning on listing in 18 months and Armstrong is keeping an eye on the ensuing ­mountain of IPO work it will entail.

Being at such a progressive company means Armstrong has to be flexible, thinking quickly to give advice when a new acquisition or opening is mooted – a skill he learnt from being embedded with management teams in the past.

“I work very closely with [chief executive] Nick Varney,” he says. “His ambition knows no bounds. The company is doing so well, funding is easy for us to find and I don’t think any of our rivals can do what we’re doing. Nick said he didn’t just want legal advice on its own, nor did he want an army of lawyers at the company, which suits me. I like having a small department. We have close relationships with our advisers –  once we get to know people we stick with them.”

On reaching the top of the London Eye some 135 metres up, you need a good head for heights. Whether ­Merlin can climb any higher will depend on the nerves of the ­management team and Armstrong, who is a vital cog in the success of the company. If only they could tempt him off the rollercoasters and back into the office.

Name: Colin Armstrong
Organisation: Merlin Entertainments Group
Industry: Leisure/entertainment
Position: Group legal director and company secretary
Reporting to: Group chief financial officer Andrew Carr
Company turnover: €1bn (£670m)
Number of employees: 13,500
Total legal capacity: One, plus two company secretaries
Total legal spend: £7m
Main external law firms: Ashurst (London), Knights (Newcastle under Lyme), TLT (Bristol)

Colin Armstrong’s CV

1986: LLB (Hons), University of ­Edinburgh
1987: DipLP, University of Edinburgh
­­Work history: 1987: Trainee, Dundas & Wilson, ­Edinburgh
1990-92: Solicitor, Slaughter and May
1992-97: Solicitor, Ashurst
1997-2000: Group company secretary and head of legal affairs, National Express Group
2000-01: Group company secretary and head of legal affairs, Northern Leisure, then part of management buy-in team
2001-07: Group legal director and ­company secretary, AutoLogic ­Holdings
2007-present: Group legal director and ­company secretary, Merlin ­Entertainments Group