After helping London to bag the Olympics, Philip Beard was ready for the capital's next challenge: transforming the Millennium Dome into a venue people wanted to visit. But creating The 02 proved easier than expected
Philip Beard works for a Goliath of a company yet the office he occupies in London's Canary Wharf is, apart from the spectacular views, relatively modest. This speaks volumes about the chief executive of The O2, which
famously emerged from the ashes of the Millennium Dome in Greenwich thanks to massive investment by the European arm of US sports and music presenter Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) and a lucrative naming deal with mobile phone supplier O2.
Beard's CV reveals numerous triumphs—he was part of the management teams behind both the Air Miles loyalty programme and London's 2012 Olympics bid—yet there's little sign of the self-admiration that oozes from some business leaders. He's been described as "someone who gets things done". He says: "As you get older, you realise what you're good at and what you're not good at. A serial entrepreneur ignites an idea. I'd like to think I can help deliver it. I have an entrepreneurial gene, but it's a small one."
He was directing marketing and sponsorship for the Olympic bid when he first met AEG's senior US executives and the CEO of AEG Europe, David Campbell (who'd been lured away from Visit London to kickstart the Dome project in 2004). When Beard heard their vision to transform the negative legacy of the Dome into a new sort of venue for sport, music and entertainment, he wanted to play a part.
"AEG was one of the commercial partners for the bid and I was impressed by what they were doing, certainly in America, and the plans they had," says Beard. "Given my background in launches of products and companies, it was too exciting an opportunity to miss. The Olympics was five and a half years away and this was five and a half months away."
He must have been reassured by AEG's pedigree. It owns the Staples Centre in LA and the Nokia Theatre in Times Square, New York; and is developing LA Live, a four million sq ft, $2.5bn downtown sports, residential and entertainment district.
The UK model is different, without the resident sports teams found in the US venues, but the 250-strong team at The O2 haven't done badly so far. The 20,000-capacity arena has seen World Championship boxing, American NHL ice hockey and NBA basketball games. It will host the Olympic basketball and gymnastics finals in 2012.
And it can't have escaped anyone's notice that Prince, Barbra Streisand, Take That, the Spice Girls and Led Zeppelin have all added to The O2's coffers since the venue opened in June 2007.
All of this adds weight to René Carayol's observation that the Dome was an example of the inability of the government and the public sector to implement large-scale plans effectively, and that the project should have been handed over to big business to ensure its success. The author and business speaker tells Director: "When you've got a business imperative, if you don't deliver by a particular date, your business and reputation will suffer. If we look at the Dome, there was no burning platform, the world wasn't going to change whether it was delivered or not. No organisation was going to suffer a profit drop or a fall in the share price. If that was a Tesco or an Arsenal project, the possible loss of reputation would mean everything."
So how much of The O2's success is down to Beard? Carayol thinks his appointment was an inspired one. "AEG went for the best of the best," he says. "Beard had a really tough job delivering the 2012 Olympics, but he did it. He has passion and he wanted to work for them—it's a dream ticket.
I think what Philip and the O2 team are trying to do is to create something unique. That means you have a far more sustainable strategy than everyone else striving to do the same thing and be 'the best'."
Beard is more self-effacing. He says the team running the venue are the best operational people he has ever worked with. He had high hopes as he watched the changes taking shape under the canopy, but didn't realise how quickly the refitting and rebranding would change public perception of the site, from laughing stock to top destination. "Our American bosses are used to doing this and aren't surprised," he says, "but we're delighted."
So, if the rejuvenated complex was the world's third highest-grossing venue of 2007, what sort of turnover figures are we looking at? When it comes to "money talk", Beard is vague: "For the first year, our intention was to focus on delivering a product and now we're focusing on how we commercially deliver the return. In phase one, we invested £350m. We have a phase two, because 20 to 30 per cent of the space under the canopy still needs to be developed. But we're looking at the bigger picture. AEG is a hugely successful company and it's not looking for a short-term return."
What we do know is that AEG invested £600m and the lucrative naming rights went for £6m a year. According to Beard, mobile phone company O2 made a "very brave decision" three years ago to throw its hat into the ring and partner up with AEG.
Matthew Key, CEO of Telefónica O2 Europe, drove that deal. He explains why: "The idea of attaching our name to the venue was a bold move because the Dome had been vilified as nothing but a white elephant. But as soon as AEG shared its concept with us, we realised the huge benefits we would be able to give our customers." He says the partnership has exceeded his expectations, and reckons 400,000 O2 customers have already used the special lounges set aside for them.
Criticism is scant. Some gig-goers have described the arena as cold and characterless, like an aircraft hangar. The Evening Standard's Richard Godwin found it to be "a clammy, tacky, consumerist hellhole with all the rock 'n' roll credentials of Brent Cross Shopping Centre". You can't please everyone, says Beard, adding: "We've managed to get every demographic to come down and they become ambassadors for the venue. The business model works on the basis that it's a venue for everybody."
He's clearly proud of his team's progress—The O2 won Best New Concert Venue and Best International Arena of the Year at the Pollstar Concert Industry Awards in February—yet the announcement by the International Olympic Committee president, in Singapore, of London's successful bid will always be a career highlight. "I'd say it was more special than getting married, because I knew I was getting married, I'd made lots of plans. But I wasn't necessarily expecting 'London' to come out of Jacques Rogge's mouth."
As corporate relations director for the 2012 bid from November 2003, Beard's remit was to help raise a third of the bid budget from corporate partners, and to get UK plc on side. "We got Richard Branson and Rod Eddington in a boat together with [bid leader] Seb Coe coxing," he recalls. "The theme was Virgin and British Airways pulling together for London's bid. To get those companies to put their competitive issues aside sent a very positive message."
Working on the bid reunited Beard with his old friend and former business partner, Sir Keith Mills, who had become international president and CEO of London 2012. But back in 1987, Sir Keith had hired Beard as a "cheap sales and marketing person" to work for his Air Miles company.
He confirms that Beard's forte has always been the ability to build long-term business relationships: "One of the things you really need to do in a new business is build a huge amount of goodwill around whatever the venture happens to be," he says. "I can't think of anyone better than Phil, at a senior level, to do that. Clearly, the product—whether it's Air Miles, the Olympics or The O2—has to deliver. But it's also about building loyalty from a bunch of very important corporate partners."
Beard himself remains loyal to the team he worked with on the bid. He doesn't say that it was a bureaucratic nightmare, preferring to describe the relationship between the politicians and industry leaders involved as "interesting". And he's quick to defend that 2012 logo, which received a mauling when it was unveiled. "I'm proud that we appointed Wolff Olins to do the logo," he says. "A Beefeater standing next to London Bridge with a torch would have been a safe option, but it would have been wrong. We won the bid on saying that we would engage the youth of the world. I don't know any logo that has had such a dramatic impact, and I would suggest that it'll go down as one of the most successful in the Olympics' history."
He has long recognised that it requires something special to get a message across to the masses. He's doing it now at The O2 by giving residencies to artists. "Prince, for example, did 21 nights," he says. "That's a very successful financial model for them, especially when recorded music is struggling." And he set a precedent back in 1987 when he hired a Concorde to fly 70 senior executives to Bordeaux to unveil the Air Miles concept.
But he believes that what really separates the wheat from the chaff in business is a good team. As Carayol says: "The art of leadership is to surround yourself with people who are better than you. It takes an 'A' player to surround themselves with 'A+' players."
Beard tends to agree: "The key is to put a strong team together, to leave the senior management to run the business. When things aren't going as well as you want them to, you've got to look around the table and see that people are prepared to stay with it rather than go running for the hills."
If past form is anything to go by, Beard won't be bailing out any time soon. Things are going well at The O2 and its strategy looks sustainable. With the Olympics to look forward to, and a strong line-up pencilled in for the arena this year and next, Beard says his job now is to build on the successful start and "think about how we create value in that, much further down the road".
As I leave his office, Beard is still kicking himself for admitting to an embarrassing preference: "I'm worried about how much I like Take That." In the reception area, a Michael Jackson video is playing on one of the plasma TVs. It has been rumoured that the star will perform a residency at The O2 arena at the end of this year. Now that would be a thriller.