Sir Keith Mills: The Man with the Plan
PUBLISHED: 11:42 15 August 2016 | UPDATED: 11:42 15 August 2016
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Growing up in a Brentwood council house, Sir Keith Mills had little idea of the projects he would be involved in during his career. Here he tells Holly Eells about his passion for sport, the success of the London Olympics and his hopes for the upcoming America’s Cup.
If you can say one thing about Brentwood-born businessman, Sir Keith Mills, it is that he likes a challenge. With an astonishing CV that boasts a string of risky but highly successful business ventures over the last few decades, Essex should be proud of this ‘one of a kind’ entrepreneur.
Growing up in a council house in Brentwood, the Air Miles and Nectar Card founder has come a long way since those days. Leaving St Martin’s Country Secondary School for boys on Hanging Hill Lane in Hutton at 15 years old, he was left with two options: to follow his father’s footsteps as a factory worker and join Ford Dagenham Motors or become an office boy in the city. He chose the latter.
Sir Keith believes choosing this career path may have been his biggest break. He explains: ‘I got a job as a copy assistant at The Economist newspaper. It was, and still is, acknowledged as one of the best publications in the world. It gave me the opportunity to see a different part of the world compared to my fairly limited life growing up in Brentwood. Suddenly I was in St James Street in a tall building with very important people, reporting on very vital things across the globe. It opened my eyes to what was going on in the world. It was at that point when I started thinking about my own business.’
Sir Keith is widely known for inventing the Air Miles brand in the 1980s and the Nectar Card loyalty scheme later on. He says: ‘In the late 1990s, I sold one of my Air Miles businesses for a lot of money, which gave me the opportunity to discover what route I wanted to embark on next. The first half, or maybe two-thirds, of my life has involved me developing my own businesses and I decided it would be a good idea to do something unusual instead.’
After embarking on a completely different venture, Sir Keith came to the realisation that he wanted to do more. He explains: ‘In 1998 I did an around-the-world yacht race and during that race I came to the conclusion that there was more to life then just making money, which had been my focus for the last 20 to 30 years. From there, I started reading up about the America’s Cup. I have always been passionate about sport, mainly through professional yacht racing.’
The America’s Cup is the oldest international sporting trophy in the world. Affectionately known as the Auld Mug, it’s a trophy awarded to the winner of the America’s Cup match races between sailing yachts from different countries. One yacht, known as the defender, represents the yacht club that currently holds the America’s Cup and the second yacht, known as the challenger, represents the yacht club that is challenging for the cup. The timing of each match is determined by an agreement between the defender and the challenger.
Sir Keith is excited to be bringing the 35th America’s Cup World Series (ACWS) to British waters this summer for the first time in 164 years – an event he believes they have a great chance in thanks to his confidence in fellow knighthood-holder and skipper for the team, Sir Ben Ainslie.
Sir Keith says: ‘It would be one of the biggest achievements for me, to win the America’s Cup in June next year in Bermuda. I personally find winning intoxicating and because we have never won before, it would obviously be amazing to win.’
Aside from launching Air Miles, acting as chairman for Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and being recently appointed as chairman of the Royal Foundation, Sir Keith claims that winning the Olympic bid was one of his proudest moments to date.
He explains: ‘When we won the Olympic bid against all the odds in Singapore, it was an extraordinary experience. I was approached in 2003 completely out of the blue, even though I had no knowledge of the Olympic or Paralympic Games. Apart from watching it on television, like everyone else, and enjoying the sports, that is.’
Nevertheless, with no knowledge in this field, he proved he was more than adequate for the role as deputy chairman of the London Organising Committee and was awarded for his astonishing achievements in organising a spectacular games.
He adds: ‘I received my first Knighthood from The Queen after we won the bid for the Olympic Games. The second, the Knight Grand Cross, was awarded to me for delivering a successful Olympic and Paralympic Games. Only two people receive this award a year, so that was a big achievement for me. However, the only benefit of being a Sir is you generally get a nice table in a restaurant!’
Sir Keith continues to strive for success, both for himself and for his businesses, but does he ever find time to relax?
‘I am busy, but the most important people in your life are your family and I try to make as much time as possible with them.’ Sir Keith is married to Lady Maureen and they have two children, Alex and Abigail.
He continues: ‘Alex is a big sailor, like me, and in 1999 he was a member of a team captained by Alex Thomson that won the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. Abigail works in the major events business and she was involved in the Olympic Games opening ceremony. They both live in London and I am now a grandfather to two beautiful grandchildren.
‘Other than sailing, I have a lovely home in Hampshire on the River Burley. As I spend my life around people in lots of meetings and travelling across the world, I just like to have some quiet time too. Down time in my house is lovely as I just go off for walks. I don’t do anything special; it’s just nice to get away from the craziness of everyday life.’
Sir Keith’s family home is now south of the river in Kent, but he often goes back to his Essex routes. ‘I loved growing up in Brentwood, it was a lovely town and still is; I have lots of fond memories there. However, it was one of those places where families had been moved to from the East End after the bombings of World War II, so a lot of the kids at my school were pretty tough. They taught me another side to life.’
He adds: ‘I still have family in and around the area and I do like to go back there. A lot of fun is made of the Essex girls, but I’m an Essex boy! The county is severely underrated and people don’t believe it when they see that Essex is a beautiful place.