Peter Phillipson, Chairman, Merlin Entertainments
PETER Phillipson has spent his career creating and revitalising world-famous brands. Now the chairman of Merlin Entertainments tells Andrew Hebden of his latest ambition – to open the eyes of the world to his home region.
ASK Peter Phillipson to choose some memorable moments from a lifetime which has rarely been dull, and nobody who knows him will be surprised to find football and family figuring pretty high on the list.
One of them might, for example, be his time at St Mary’s Tech in Longbenton during the 1970s, when his all-time United hero Tony Green presented his school team with the Northumberland Under-16s Cup – a career high-point, he readily confesses.
Or perhaps the time when his son Tom was a ball boy at Alan Shearer’s testimonial match.
Then there was the incident involving a waxwork model of David Beckham, a gaggle of eager Press photographers, and the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square.
This was to prove a key point in the evolution of Madame Tussaud’s – when a dusty museum with roots in an 18th Century Parisian waxwork collection began a transformation into a leisure industry giant.
“I rang Ken Livingstone, who was the mayor of London at the time, and said can I launch David Beckham’s (waxwork) portrait on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square?” recalls Phillipson, who had recently taken over as chief executive of the museum’s parent company, The Tussauds Group.
“He said no, it’s a health and safety hazard. So I rang the police and we got in touch with all of our journalist friends and told them we were going to do it anyway.
“We all went down at 7am to Trafalgar Square. We got David Beckham on the plinth and we got fantastic coverage – on the front page of all but one of the national newspapers. That really did signal the relaunch of Madame Tussaud’s. From that point, the business went from strength to strength.”
Affable father-of-three Phillipson, 55, who hasn’t lost his Geordie accent despite moving out of the region when in his twenties, is justifiably proud of his achievements at Tussauds, which transformed the fortunes of the leisure attraction group.
In 2001, he inherited a business worth less than £300m, making a profit of £30m and employing 3,000 staff. When it was sold by private equity group Charterhouse five years later to Dubai International Capital, staff numbers had doubled, profits were up to £100m and the sale price was £800m. And when the business was subsequently bought by Blackstone, the owner of Merlin Entertainments, to form the second largest leisure group in the world after Disney, the sale price was £1.2bn.
The numbers tell only half the story, however. If the Beckham stunt and similar high-profile arrivals for stars such as Kylie, underlined Madame Tussaud’s transformation into a living celebration of modern culture, the work behind the scenes was even more important.
Phillipson recalls being attracted to a group that owned venues that were household names with “very, very high awareness”.
“Everyone had heard of Madame Tussaud’s or Alton Towers or Warwick Castle or Thorpe Park,” he says. “But they were brands that had been neglected.
“Madame Tussaud’s was a sort of dusty old museum and it needed energising. I felt that I could do that. But I also recognised that they had some fantastic freehold sites with some tremendous development potential. And if we could get some of those concepts right there might be some opportunities to roll them out to other countries around the world and create a genuine international business.
“Most of all, I was aware that the culture was very bureaucratic, very centrally driven, very hierarchical. And it seemed to me that if you were running a dynamic business where you might be selling ice creams in the morning and umbrellas in the afternoon, where things change very quickly, then you don’t want everything to be centrally controlled. You want to push as many decisions as close to the customer as you possibly can.”