Jazz Shaper: Sir Keith Mills

Posted on 05 June 2021

Sir Keith Mills GBE DL is a British business entrepreneur who founded the Air Miles and Nectar customer loyalty programmes and has established numerous businesses, both in the UK and internationally.

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers, this is where the Shapers of Business join the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues.  My guest today is seriel entrepreneur, Sir Keith Mills, Founder of the Air Miles and Nectar customer loyalty programmes and International President and CEO of London 2012, the company that successfully won the bid for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.  After a teacher told him his career options were “sweeping Dagenham Ford factory floor or making coffee and running messages in London,” Sir Keith chose the latter and left school aged 15 with on a swimming certificate.  Working his way up through the advertising industry to launch his own agency in his early twenties, he went on to found and hold leadership roles at multiple businesses and charities, launching the Air Miles International Group in 1988 and developing both Air Miles, the incentive scheme for spare airplane seats and Nectar, the supermarket loyalty card that reached 21 million households.  After his company, London 2012, won the bid to host the Olympic Games, Sir Keith established the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, where he was Deputy Chairman alongside Lord Sebastian Coe.  He is the founder of two sport development charities, International Inspiration and the UK-focussed, Sported, and in 2014 he founded and was chairman of The Invictus Games, working with Prince Harry to deliver a new major international sport event for wounded servicemen and women.  As he says, “I am driven by organisations that make a real contribution to society.” 

It’s lovely to have you on the programme.  I’ve wanted to have you on it for quite a while and here you are.  Thank you so much for joining today. 

Sir Keith Mills

It’s great to be here. 

Elliot Moss

Sir Keith, your background is where I want to start, just briefly.  I’m not going to do a chronology so, don’t worry.  Started life in a Council house, left school at fifteen.  Could you in your wildest dreams have imagined that your life would have panned out like this?

Sir Keith Mills

No not really.  I mean, I had no idea and I don’t think many fifteen year olds have any idea of how their life is going to pan out.  Actually, whilst our family didn’t have any money, I had a great family, a great mum and dad and brother and sister and although we lived in a Council house in Essex, we had a fun, early few years of life but no idea of where it was going and all I did know was that I really didn’t want to go and work at Ford Motor Company in Dagenham. 

Elliot Moss

And in terms of the advertising thing and how it happened, there are many self-made people in the advertising world, or at least there were a little earlier, now it’s much harder and there are the more, the usual trail of University graduates and so on and so forth but plenty of entrepreneurial people have started in the post room or the equivalent.  What was it like when you did start and how quickly did you feel like you ought to be, or you would want to run your own show?

Sir Keith Mills

Well, I started actually in Fleet Street and, yeah, I was the office boy, running errands and that sort of thing and it was pretty clear in the first couple of jobs that I had, which were mostly around the media, that somebody with no qualifications – and in those days, no connections, you know I was a Council house kid from Essex without the connections – and without the qualifications, I simply wasn’t going to get an interesting job and so it became pretty evident pretty quickly that if I was going to do things that were interesting, I was probably going to have to do them myself so it was really, it was my only option to do interesting things, I guess. 

Elliot Moss

And were there people in those early days that said, “This boy’s got something”?  Did you recall people saying, “Do you know what Keith, go for it?”  Were they encouraging or was it more like, “uh, who’s this fellow”, as you said, with no contacts, thinks he’s above his station, wants to go and, you know, change the world?  What was it?  Because I think, you know, you read about people and I’ve read a lot about you and I haven’t heard, oh yes Elliot, there was this mentor and so on and so forth but I wonder if there were people that nudged you, at the time?

Sir Keith Mills

Yeah, I mean, I think I joined The Economist newspaper when I was around nineteen, I guess, it was my second or third job, and that opened my eyes to a completely different world because pretty much everyone at The Economist went to Oxford or Cambridge and most of them were educated at Harrow or Eton and I saw a very different way of life and I have to say some of the people there gave me a huge encouragement that just because I didn’t go to a smart school or University, really didn’t, you know, the Editor then was a guy called Alastair Burnett and, you know, sitting with him on a Wednesday evening figuring out how to put The Economist to bed, gave me a sense of what was possible and I think if there was any company of group of individuals that gave me a break, it was The Economist. 

Elliot Moss

In The Economist world and in the advertising world, you are essentially earning, well you moved from The Economist into advertising and you were earning fees and that’s all very nice.  I recall many, many years ago that you sort of said, “I think I had an epiphany Elliot, I realised I wanted to find a business where I could be making money while I was asleep” and there was a client that you had – I think it was Caledonian, at the time, if I recall and you can correct me if I’m wrong, just remembered this story suddenly – and you said, “Actually, I’ve figured out that if I created this Air Miles programme, this was a different business model and it wouldn’t mean I was at my desk for fifteen hours a day.” 

Sir Keith Mills

Yeah, I mean, that’s sort of broadly right.  I had started, bought, sold some advertising agencies in the 1980s and it was really hard work, frankly.  Clients were very fickle and it was a tough way to earn a living and I certainly had some thoughts about there must be an easier way or running a business and earning money and I was on a train journey, actually, from Liverpool on a Friday evening back to London.  I was up there seeing Royal Insurance, one of my advertising clients, and I had a brief from British Caledonian, the airline, and from Shell and, quite separate briefs, this is way before Ryanair and EasyJet and low cost carriers and British Caledonian, like most airlines, was running at around 70% load factor, i.e. 70% of the seats were sold and their brief to me was, “We’ve tried lots of things to fill our unsold seats because, you know, generating extra revenue for an unsold seat, goes straight to the bottom line so, any ideas you might have of filling those unsold seats, would be really worth listening to” and at the same time I had a brief from Shell who run probably the most commoditised business you can imagine, selling petrol.  How do we differentiate Shell from BP from all the other petrol retailers and I came up on this… playing with this concept called Air Miles of currency that if Shell gave all their drivers Air Miles when they filled up with petrol and they saved then up, then they could redeem them for flights on British Caledonian, I mean that was the… it didn’t work out that way incidentally but that was the core of the idea. 

Elliot Moss

And then the leap from actually realising or having that thought and then realising the ambition, again would have taken some guts because then you essentially say well, I’ve got a new business idea here and then you had to get people to buy into it.  And in that process, was there any doubt because, again, you look back and one looks at your life from outside of you and only you know what it feels like truthfully, and they say, “Wow, that’s the fella that created that,” I mean, at the time you probably thought you were going to lose everything, I imagine or were there moments of that?

Sir Keith Mills

Yeah, I mean I think in all businesses in the early stages, there are lots of moments of doubt.  I think though, and actually subsequently, I mean I see lots and lots and lots of business plans and I invest in businesses, the most difficult thing is not the idea, actually, the most difficult thing is the execution, turning that idea into a viable, long-term business.  So, the idea on the train coming back from Liverpool was the easy bit.  When I got back to my agency on Monday morning, I gave the idea to my finance director and said, “This is a brilliant idea.  We are going to make a fortune,” and he got his calculator out and worked out that you’d have to spend £65,000 on petrol to get a free airline ticket and that really wasn’t viable.  So, with all of the businesses that I’ve been involved in, turning a good idea into a great business is really challenging and it was very challenging getting Air Miles off the ground and getting British Airways to buy into it and, frankly, had it not worked, I would have been bankrupt and been wiped out.  As with many entrepreneurs, they put everything on the line and I put everything on the line and thankfully, it eventually came good. 

Elliot Moss

And the DNA, just to briefly, that’s in Keith Mills, that says, “I put everything on the line” but essentially what the next sentence is, “And that means I’m prepared to lose it.”  Where does that “and I’m prepared to back myself” belief come from?

Sir Keith Mills

Do you know, I really don’t know.  The one advantage of having nothing, which is really where I started at fifteen in a Council house, is that you can’t go much further back from that really so, I can imagine somebody that perhaps has had a great education and a great University and perhaps had parents with money being worried that if they do something stupid, they are going to lose a lot.  But, you know, if you start with not a lot then there’s not a lot to lose but numerous times through my career, not just with Air Miles but with pretty much every other major move, I have taken significant risks and to be honest, I think in my DNA, I thrive on challenges and thrive on taking risks and if I’m not taking a risk, frankly I don’t feel like I’m trying hard enough. 

Elliot Moss

Stay with me for my Business Shaper, Sir Keith Mills, who hopefully won’t feel he’s not trying hard enough here for at least the next half an hour or so.  He’ll be back with me in a couple of minutes.  Right now though, we’re going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions, they can be found on all the major podcast platforms.  Mishcon de Reya’s Alexander Rhodes explores how businesses are responding to Covid-19 and the importance that social value will play in success, in the post-crisis world. 

You can hear all our former Business Shapers on the Jazz Shapers podcast and indeed you can hear this very programme again, or if you have a smart speaker, you can ask it to play Jazz Shapers and there you will be greeted by many of our recent shows.  Back to today’s guest, serial entrepreneur, Sir Keith Mills, Founder of the Air Miles and Nectar customer loyalty programmes and a very important person behind London’s successful bid to host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.  So, the backing yourself thing works and as you said earlier, you don’t feel like you’re trying hard enough.  These opportunities that come up and the ones that you create as well as the ones that are given to you, is there an instinct now that just kicks in with regard to, yeah, this is going to work or not or is there a formula that you still follow to ensure that there’s going to be success?

Sir Keith Mills

Well, I think a lot of people like me, do run on gut feel.  Does this feel like it’s a good idea?  Does it feel like it’s worth putting time and effort and money into it?  I often go and talk at schools and, you know, I say to the youngsters there, “Through your life, opportunities will come your way and it’s very easy to say no because either you don’t think you can do it or because you’ve got a fear of failure” but I’ve always run my life on the basis that if it looks like it’s interesting, we are only here once, to give it a go and probably the biggest sort of public risk I took was taking on the bid for the London Olympics because I knew absolutely nothing about the Olympic Games but I thought I could pull it off and got a great team together and somehow we did. 

Elliot Moss

When you speak, you make it all sound really straightforward and I mean, the opposite of how that may have sounded, which is well, it’s just saying it, it’s really easy, but there’s something about, it strikes me that obviously your down to earthiness, if there is such a thing, but it’s almost like there’s a calmness inside of you that says, “Right, okay, well I don’t understand about it and that’s fine, I’ll accept it but I think I can help.”  The execution bit which you mentioned earlier, when you then have gone over the hump of well, I don’t know anything about it but I’m going to do it, in terms of executing excellently, if there were three or four things that are at the heart of how Keith Mills goes about ensuring that it’s going to be a success, what are they once you’ve got over the hump, once you’ve taken the risk?

Sir Keith Mills

Well, I think it starts with finding some really smart people and I’ve spent my life trying to find people that are much smarter than me and bring them together into a team because whether it’s my businesses or the sports things that I do or the Olympic Games or the other projects, they’ve all started by assembling a great team of people so that’s where I start and then my contribution, I think, is by giving them some direction and coming up with a game plan and then helping them execute it.  I mean, realistically, I don’t, this sounds terrible, I don’t really do a lot, I just help other people do a lot and I give them the direction that they need. 

Elliot Moss

In terms of winning the bid for the Olympics, the level of organisation in those final hours of, essentially, lobbying, walking the corridors, making sure that Seb Coe saw someone, David Beckham saw someone, whoever it was, was in the room.  I imagine it was at a military level – earpieces, go there, turn left, go right, have that conversation – and, again, I’m recalling a conver… I’m pretty sure you talked about just how organised you had to be.  If you didn’t know anything about the Olympics and you didn’t know anything, you know, how did you come to the notion that, okay, we’ve now got to ensure that in these last few hours that the IOC vote for London?  How do you get to the answers of well, I’m going to make sure that 37 conversations happen in the next 47 minutes?  I mean, those are… you’ve got to know something, Keith.  Where does that sort of strategy come from?

Sir Keith Mills

Well it starts by a lot of work in the preceding eighteen months or two years so, in the eighteen months leading up to those final few days in Singapore where we made, you know, the five finalists made their presentations to the IOC, we’d identified about 65 IOC… so, about 115 IOC members at that time and they all have a vote and we’d identified 65 of them that could vote for London in the first round or the second round or the third round.  So, the way it works is, everyone votes, if there’s no city with a clear majority then the city with fewest votes drops out and they vote again until they get a winner and we had a pretty good idea by the time we went to Singapore, who people’s first vote was going to be and who people’s second vote was going to be and so we identified 65 of them and we decided that in the 48 hours before the vote, we would try and arrange a 30 minute meeting with all 65 and we did that using Tony Blair and Ken Livingstone and Craig Reedie who was the IOC member for the UK, the Princess Royal, Seb, myself and we ran a military operation.  As you say, we had six rooms in the hotel, we had my team running round with radios in their ear finding these 65 members which were in a very large conference centre, some of them were pre-organised meetings, and we had a very simple message to them, we didn’t actually ever ask for a vote, that was another rule that I put in place, we’d ask for advice and we had 30 minutes and a cup of tea with 65 IOC members and somehow we got 54 of them to vote for us in the final round. 

Elliot Moss

And that’s how you do it.  If people were to describe your leadership style, whether it’s Sebastian Coe alongside you or whether it’s the many, many people that you’ve managed over the years, what do you think they’d say?

Sir Keith Mills

I think I give them a lot of confidence, I mean I’m an eternal optimist so, you know, as much as giving them guidance and direction, I do seem to motivate people, I don’t know why or how.  I have an infectious enthusiasm about the various things that I do and I think that enthusiasm rubs off on the people that I work with and… but I also like, you know, I like to think that things that we do, I mean I’ve worked jolly hard like most people but I like to think that the things that I do are fun as well.  You can make business fun and you can make, certainly make organising the Olympic Games fun, you can make most things fun because life’s very short and if we’re not enjoying what we’re doing, we shouldn’t be doing it. 

Elliot Moss

But your standards are also very high and this is where I just wonder whether when or do you get irritated?  Do you ever raise your voice because you know what great looks like because you know when you deliver it, good things happen?  Are you, you know, are you a little impatient sometimes as one would expect of someone like you, and I don’t mean that because I know you but I mean because you are just… the stakes are pretty high? 

Sir Keith Mills

Yeah, well actually, one of my shortcomings is that I really, really, really hate losing and so if people are doing stupid things and costing us a big deal or the Olympic Games or something else then I get very frustrated.  I set high standards and I expect the people around me to follow those sorts of standards and if they are doing stupid things then I clearly, like most people, get upset but if primarily because in my genes somewhere is a sort of winning mentality, I hate to lose and that’s also infectious for the people around you, you know, people like to work with winners.

Elliot Moss

And in the winning mentality with regard to the Olympics which I don’t think I’ve ever been as proud of the country, my country, our country, as I was when we won it but also of course when we were actually in it and I’m visiting there as just another citizen.  When did you have the biggest high in terms of your pride because obviously you lived and breathed it for years?  Was there a moment when you went, “Wow, I’ve been part of making something really special happen” and if so, when was that moment?

Sir Keith Mills

I think there were probably two moments for me.  The first moment was when we brought the Olympic flame from Greece to the UK and Seb and I and a small team went out and actually lit the flame which is done in ancient Olympia with the sun, and then it kicked off in Land’s End at 6 o’clock in the morning and I was there.  Ben Ainsley, who is a buddy of mine, Olympic sailor, was the first runner and I sat on the media truck that had all the cameras on it for most of that day and I watched the public come out in all the villages and all the towns and when we got to Plymouth, I think we had fifty-odd thousand people in the centre of Plymouth – that was the sort of beginning if you like of making it real.  And then, to be honest, right at the end, the end of the Closing Ceremony of the Paralympic Games, Seb Coe and Paul Deighton who was our CEO, and I think probably, Tessa Jowell – God bless her, she’s not with us now – but the Secretary of State was with us, and everyone had left the stadium and we were sitting there drinking beer and I think a sort of great sense of satisfaction that we’d pulled it off because the potential for catastrophes right along the way were significant, whether it was security catastrophes or weather catastrophes and the fact that we got to the end and it had gone so well, I think was, you know, incredible feeling. 

Elliot Moss

Stay with me for my final chat with my guest today, it’s Sir Keith Mills and we’ve also got some music from Diana Krall.  That’s all coming up in just a moment, don’t go anywhere.

I have just a few more minutes now with Sir Keith Mills as we try and conclude without missing anything critical and important – I’m bound to do that, I’m sure.  The thing that also underpins for me your life, is your set of values and your sense of fairness and you sense of participation, the importance of sport within that and many, many other things.  How has that developed and where does it go next?

Sir Keith Mills

Well, you are right, I mean if you’ve been fairly successful, you’ve made some money, you absolutely… most of the people I know really want to give something back and I wanted to do some things around the Olympic Games as my sort of contribution as it were to the Games and I started a couple of charities then, using sport to help disadvantaged kids both in the UK and around the world, and I mean I’d been involved with Breakthrough Breast Cancer and few other charities previously but these new charities that I started really had a soft spot.  Watching how sport can transform the lives of young people, I think I really got.  And then, you know, later on when I got a call from Kensington Palace, you know, Prince Harry had an idea he wanted to talk to me about and then putting together the Invictus Games for those people that have served their country and have been injured or wounded.  You get so much back by being involved in the community and in charities and all the people that I know that either financially or give time up to support charities, get ten times back the effort that they put in and from Invictus, went on to chair at the Royal Foundation with, actually that was started by William and Harry but then became Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and we did lots of stuff around mental health and the environment so, I get a huge kick out of giving back. 

Elliot Moss

And in terms of the people, Keith, that you mix with, again back to the boy from Essex, now mixes with, literally, princes and princesses and so on and so forth, do you give a hoot?  I mean, does it even flicker?  Is there a sense that it, that you treat anyone differently?

Sir Keith Mills

No, I certainly, I don’t think I treat anyone differently and all the people I deal with, including you know members of the Royal family, you know, they are, all of them that I’ve worked with, are genuinely they are trying to do the right thing and it’s a real privilege to help them do it and whether it’s a famous footballer or a famous Olympic star, it’s really the values of the individual that I think are important and most people, frankly, are good people, all trying to do the right thing. 

Elliot Moss

It’s been a real pleasure talking to you.  Thank you, in this slightly virtual, unusual world, it would have been nice to have met you in person but maybe that will happen one day soon too.  Just before I let you disappear into the ether, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Sir Keith Mills

I’ve chosen a really haunting piece by Candy Dulfer who is a Dutch saxophonist and she produced a piece of music, I don’t know it must have been ten years ago now, with Dave Stewart and what I love about this piece of music is that it’s a saxophone talking to a guitar and, I mean, it’s a haunting piece of music and it’s one of my favourites.

Elliot Moss

Candy Dulfer with Lily Was Here, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Keith Mills.  “If I’m not taking risks, I’m not trying hard enough” he said.  He talked about the importance of execution and just how critical it is beyond having the idea.  He talked about not fearing failure and, of course, as he said of himself, “If you have nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”  And finally, and critically to his management style, he talked about his infectious enthusiasm.  The simple things really do matter.  That’s it from Jazz Shapers, have lovely weekend. 

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You will find hundreds of more guests available to listen to in our archive, just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

In September 2003, Sir Keith was appointed International President and CEO of London 2012, established to bid for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Having won the bid, he established the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, where he was Deputy Chairman alongside Lord Sebastian Coe. In 2007, Sir Keith established and chaired an Olympic Games legacy initiative, the charity International Inspiration and in 2008 he established the UK charity, Sported, which he funded and chaired for 10 years.

Sir Keith has received numerous awards including Master Entrepreneur of the Year, Chief Executive of the Year and the Sports Industry Businessman of the Year. He was knighted in 2006 and received the Grand Knight Cross in 2013 in recognition of his services to sport.

Highlights

Whilst our family didn’t have any money, I had a great family, a great mum and dad and brother and sister and although we lived in a Council house in Essex, we had a fun, early few years of life.

I [started as] the office boy, running errands.

If there was any company or group of individuals that gave me a break, it was The Economist.

The most difficult thing is the execution, turning that idea into a viable, long-term business.

As with many entrepreneurs, they put everything on the line and I put everything on the line and thankfully, it eventually came good.

The one advantage of having nothing, which is really where I started at fifteen in a Council house, is that you can’t go much further back from that really.

I think in my DNA, I thrive on challenges and thrive on taking risks and if I’m not taking a risk, frankly I don’t feel like I’m trying hard enough.

I think a lot of people like me run on gut feel. Does this feel like it’s a good idea? Does it feel like it’s worth putting time and effort and money into it?

I mean I’m an eternal optimist so, you know, as much as giving [my teams] guidance and direction, I do seem to motivate people.

I’ve always run my life on the basis that if it looks like it’s interesting, we are only here once.

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