From the Aggie to the BDC, the Islington venue is celebrating its 30th birthday this month, we catch up with CEO Dominic Jones on its history and culture.
Exhibitions are among the longest-standing form of live events in our day and age; a history that we can look back on and celebrate how far our industry has come.
For some, turning 30 is seen as a milestone – often (but not always) an end to the frivolities of youth and the start of really growing up – but for the Business Design Centre (BDC), it’s a time to celebrate the past and look forward to the future.
Originally the Royal Agricultural Hall, ‘the Aggie’ has lived an age, survived neglect and recession, been rescued and grown into the Business Design Centre we all know today.
From the London Art Fair lighting up the building, to hosting celebrities at the 1999 BAFTAs (where Elizabeth Taylor came into the building via the loading bay), the BDC has seen enormous innovation.
When the foundation stones were laid in 1861, the building was a large, imposing enclosed space – larger than both its contemporaries at the time, Crystal Palace and Alexandra Palace, and hosted an array of events leading up to World War II.
The venue homed the inland and foreign parcels departments after a nearby Post Office was bombed in 1943. In 1970, almost the entire building became empty and derelict and was left unloved and neglected until the Morris family came to its rescue in the 1980s.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
“The BDC opened 30 years ago in October 1986 – it was very much the brainchild of the Morris family’s father Sam Morris, who knew of the old Royal Agricultural Hall as a young man,” Dominic Jones, chief executive at the Business Design Centre tells EN. "Towards the end of his career, he found the building sitting in a very sad state. It was owned by Islington council and they didn’t really know what to do with it.
“So the family put the building out to tender and invited people to come forward with ideas of what it should be.
“The Morris’ were the only tender that wanted to restore the building back to its former glory and create Europe’s first integrated trade and exhibition centre.”
The family acquired the building and set about its restoration, opening for business in October 1986. The official opening took place in July 1987, with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher doing the honours.
Sadly, Sam Morris died in November 1991 and had seen the building running for five years before he passed away, by which point his two youngest sons, Andrew and Jack Morris, were already working at the BDC.
“When Sam passed away, Jack became chairman and Andrew stayed on as MD until 1999, at which point the family acquired an interest with Candover Investments in Earls Court & Olympia, so Andrew moved over to become chief executive of EC&O, and I took over the reigns in October 1999,” says Jones.
“I had originally joined the company in July 1991, which was actually a really good time to join because the building was up and running, but it was also the beginning of a recession.
"In a way that gave me a good grounding and a very good understanding of the business.”
It was a natural progression for Jones to step into Andrew’s role, he adds, and over the 26 years he’s been with the venue, 17 of those as CEO, it’s fair to say that he’s seen a lot of change.
“When you take over the reigns from a family member in a family-owned business like this one, it helped that I was very much one of the team and someone who had worked his way up.
“We started to work hard on developing our culture which was already a very strong family culture, but to develop it in a different way with a CEO who wasn’t a family member that understood and appreciated the kind of family ethos of running a business.”
With roughly 140 companies permanently based in the building, the BDC is unlike any other exhibition venue.
“We are very much an interactive landlord, as we are onsite and very visible,” Jones explains. “We’re the same management team that we’ve been for the last 30 years so these companies are very familiar with us and we’re very familiar with them.
“We have that customer ethos of wanting to provide a great environment for these companies to work in, whether it’s for our exhibitions, our conferences or the permanent companies based here, it’s all about creating a brilliant, exciting and vibrant venue for them to operate within.”
For any organisation in its early years, the focus is all on the business. For the first six or seven years, the BDC were working very hard to ensure that the team had a viable business proposition, Jones explains.
Once the management team had established a successful business, the attention was turned to the staff of the venue.
“We started to recognise that staff were as important as the business in terms of the outputs and what we wanted to get from them, so we really started to focus our efforts on making this a brilliant place to work.”
Training, job security, flexibility, progression, and most importantly ensuring that work is a happy and fun place to be, have become the cornerstones of this company, which has led the BDC to become a numerous winner of EN’s Best Employer Award over the years.
Jones says that the team takes a human approach to their staff.
“We look after our people when things are perhaps tough for them, and equally we’re very demanding of our staff in terms of what we’d like to get from them,” he explains.
“At the end of the day, my ethos is very much that the customer is absolutely king and in order to deliver brilliant customer service to our customers, we have to treat and look after our staff in a brilliant way as well. If we are able to do that, then they will provide that great service on to our customers.”
Although the venue has become an Islington treasure, the exhibition industry itself still remains an undiscovered gem in the UK.
“I have a bit of a frustration about that,” admits Jones. “I look at the exhibitions sector in other European countries and I just feel that at governmental level they’re all taken a lot more seriously than we are in the UK.
"I think that’s a working progress. I think it’s all about banging the drum.
“With the BDC, we like to try and continue to innovate and set really high standards and that’s what we’ll continue to do. We’ll continue to work on our offering and make our venue a really exciting and enjoyable place to come and visit,” he concludes. Happy birthday BDC!