Public arena: Keith ­Marriott, NEC Group

Its links with the local council don’t stop NEC Group from working as a fully fledged commercial enterprise. Tom Phillips meets general counsel Keith Marriott

Keith Marriott

It is the largest arena in the country and has ambitions to match. Owned by both Birmingham City Council and Birmingham ­Chamber of Commerce in a 50-50 split, the NEC and its ­operating company NEC Group inhabits that unusual space between the public and private worlds.

“It’s an unusual stakeholder ­relationship,” admits NEC Group general counsel Keith Marriott, who has been tasked with directing a growing legal team in line with the company’s growing business.

Generating £2bn worth of ­investment and employing 120,000 people are both very good reasons for the venture to be a commercial success.

NEC Group operates the exhibition buildings in and around Birmingham that are the ICC, the NIA, LG Arena and, of course, the NEC.

Hosting exhibitions and gigs since 1976, the NEC is still the largest exhibition centre in the UK but it is now only part of a growing enterprise that encompasses casinos, ticket websites and international exhibition halls.

Most recently, LG Arena, a £25m refurbishment and sponsorship deal with LG Electronics, has been ­keeping Marriott busy. The venue is due to reopen fully in ­October with a performance from a top-secret act.

“It’ll be a world-class venue,” enthuses Marriottt, who took over managing the legal affairs at the quasi-public company in 2007. He was quick to establish a panel of external law firms, shaking the ­company’s old relationships and choosing Cobbetts, Hammonds, HBJ Gateley Wareing, Shakespeare Putsman and Shoosmiths to pick up the work.

“When I took over there was no general counsel and all the work was outsourced,” Marriott explains. “One of my primary jobs was to create a legal team and bring a lot of the ­commercial work in-house.”

There are now four in the legal team including a solicitor and trainee taken on during the past six months, reflecting the growing workload.

The LG sponsorship and refurbishment has been a large project and will “not be the last deal of its type”, Marriott claims. It is a big refurbishment for a very big space and the centre has remained in use throughout.

Marriott’s focus has been on the growing parts of the business, which have increased in size and reach since he took the role. “Ninety per cent of my job is understanding and ­delivering services to the four ­different business units,” he says.

The majority of his workload revolves around the 1,500 licence agreements from companies hiring the space, and the shops and food and drink outlets surrounding them. There are 29 separate licensed areas at the NEC alone.

There is also an extensive media business selling advertising that accompanies the events, as well as a catering service, Amedeus, that ­services the NEC Group venues.

Ticket Factory, a business created 18 months ago, is growing too, selling 1.2 million tickets last year. “It’s another example of how we’re diversifying and creating other opportunities for the business,” ­Marriott says.

Another important item on Marriott’s to-do list is the launch of a new convention centre at Spencer Dock in Dublin. Due to open in 2010, the ­centre is the first public access building built in the country since the ­formation of the Republic of Ireland.

Back in Birmingham, the ­overarching issue keeping the ­former army medical officer awake at night is ‘Destination NEC’, a project to ­establish the main NEC arena as a £90m leisure and entertainment complex housing one of the eight new super casinos.

The plan includes a partnership with Genting Solihull, a subsidiary of Genting International, a Malaysian casino and club owner that owns some 44 venues in the UK.

“We have a contractual relationship with Genting and together we will enter Solihull Council’s competition bid for a casino licence,” explains ­Marriott, who was involved in the final negotiations on the deal.

Again, the relationship with its public partner is crucial – casinos are an emotive issue among the ­electorate. “We’re very aligned to our purpose as a commercial business. The council relationship is an ­interesting aspect – its members sit on the board – and it affects the way we work. It’s more like having a ­private, major shareholder.”

Interesting, but more importantly, what has been Marriott’s favourite act at the NEC? “Stevie Wonder. To see him in the flesh was very special. ACDC were awesome too.”

Name: Keith ­Marriott
Organisation: NEC Group
Industry: Exhibition/ event venue ­management
Position: General counsel
Reporting to: Chief operating officer John Hornby
Company turnover: £127m
Number of employees: 1,100
Legal capability: Four
Main external law firms: Cobbetts, ­Hammonds, HBJ Gateley Wareing, ­Shakespeare Putsman, Shoosmiths
Total legal spend: £400,000
Keith Marriott’s CV

1992-95: LLB, University of Leicester
1996-97: LPC, De Montfort University, Leicester
Work history:
1978-92: Royal Army Medical Corps
1997-2002: Solicitor (qualified 1999), ­Hammonds
2002-07: Commercial legal director, ­Christian Salvesen
2007-present: General counsel, NEC Group